The Elusive En Dash


For several weeks, I have been wanting to dash off a post on this topic. So, what is an en dash?

a. a punctuation mark similar to a hyphen but the length of a lowercase n

b. a sprinting event in the ancient Olympic Games that was run from one end of the stadium to the other

c. a small quantity of a substance thrown into or mixed with something else, equivalent to approximately one thirty-second of a teaspoon

The Greek race was the “stadion,” and one thirty-second of a teaspoon is a “smidgen,” so an en dash must be that punctuation thing. (Sorry to dash your hopes that this post might have been about athletics or cooking.) I’m convinced that outside the worlds of publishing and printing, people have never heard of the en dash (highlighting a glaring gap in the Schoolhouse Rock library). And even then, it’s iffy: I have encountered professional editors who overlook en dashes.

At this point, I’m sure you’re dying to know exactly what the en dash does, but for context, I first want to distinguish it from its more crowd-pleasing cousins, the hyphen and the em dash. The hyphen has various functions, such as in compound adjectives (“dog-eat-dog world”), as a separator (“867-5309”), and for end-of-line word breaks. You may not know the em dash by name, but it’s the long, elegant line (technically, the length of an uppercase M) that sets off a parenthetical thought—such as this one.

The bible (a.k.a. The Chicago Manual of Style) says the following about hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes: “Though many readers may not notice the difference—especially dashesbetween an en dash and a hyphen—correct use of the different types is a sign of editorial precision and care.” I interpret this to mean that the proper utilization of these punctuation marks is essential to the maintenance of a civilized society.

The en dash is used to connect numbers and words, implying up to and including, through, or to. Here are some examples:

  • The years 1929–1939 were difficult ones for economies throughout the world.
  • For homework, read chapters 1–3 of The Great Gatsby.
  • The recipe for gluten-free brownies appears on pages 9–12.
  • Join us on Monday, 5:00–6:30 p.m., for a champagne reception.
  • The Paris–Vienna train leaves at ten o’clock.
  • St. Louis defeated San Francisco, 42–6.
  • The chess club voted 17–5 to make Wendy its president.

En dashes are also used with compound adjectives (adjectives consisting of more than one word) in which at least one element is an open compound (a compound word with spaces in it, such as ice cream). For instance:

  • the post–Cold War years
  • a romantic comedy–influenced script
  • the New York–New Jersey border
  • a Frank Gehry–designed museum
  • a White House–backed proposal

In these cases, the en dash is meant to indicate a more comprehensive link than a hyphen would. Think of it this way: if you replaced the en dash with a hyphen in any of these examples, only the words closest to the hyphen would appear to be part of the adjective. For instance, if a hyphen was substituted for the en dash in the second example, the meaning would change to a romantic, comedy-influenced script. Regarding this usage of the en dash, Chicago states, “This editorial nicety may go unnoticed by the majority of readers.” But I think it’s important to be nice.

Since you surely want to start using the en dash right away, it’s available now in the Symbol dialog box of your version of Word or Outlook. If nothing else, remember that en is an acceptable two-letter word when you get down to those last few letters in Words With Friends.

Thanks for reading. Gotta dash!

4 thoughts on “The Elusive En Dash

  1. juliecgardner

    Being nice IS important.
    THANK YOU for illuminating the en dash.

    (As a former English teacher, I am embarrassed sometimes about what I don’t know now and certainly didn’t know when I was teaching. Never too late to learn, though!)

    1. karengreenfield Post author

      Thank you for reading! I never learned about dashes in school. When I started in publishing as a production editor and received my first marked-up manuscript from a copyeditor, it was quite a revelation! And I am still learning about the nuances of style, virtually every day.


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