This is part three of a four- or five-part series on dashes and hyphens that is intended to replace an earlier article.
Part one deals purely with the mechanics of producing a given dash/rule/sign/glyph in a document using four MS Office products; Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Publisher. Part two deals with hyphenation, the different kinds of hyphen, and how and where to use hyphens. Part three (this part) deals with the En dash. Part four deals with the em dash.
What Is an En Dash?
Visually, it’s a horizontal line—a dash that is longer than a hyphen and shorter than an em dash. It’s named “en dash” because its length is (or was) equal to the width of an “n” in the typeface being used.
Today, it’s variously defined as half the length of an em dash and twice the length of a hyphen, although I haven’t yet found a formal definition for how long a hyphen should be.
Part one of this series includes a chart that allows you to compare the relative lengths of the hyphen, the en dash, the em dash, and a couple of other “dashing characters”.
How to Type an En Dash
In Word or Publisher, you can type an en dash by pressing CTRL + – on the numeric keypad. If you want to type one in Excel or Powerpoint, you have to use the Insert | Symbol menu options. More details in part one of this series of articles.
When to Use an En Dash
For the most part, an en dash is used when a hyphen might cause confusion and an em dash is just plain wrong. Here are some of the common situations when an en dash is appropriate.
When you need to type out an address that contains a suite or apartment number as well as a building number. For example, Suite number 318 in the building located at 2369 Acacia Avenue would be written thus: 318–2369 Acacia Avenue.
When you need to show a range of numbers or values such as “Pages 23–31” or “Fred Bloggs (1936–1999)”. You can also use to show an unfinished number range (e.g. “Justin Trudeau (1971–)”, which means the same as “Justin Trudeau (b.1971)”)
Do not use it if the numbers require a minus sign (e.g., -5 to -13 Celsius, not -5–13 Celsius, since the minus sign gets lost).
Do not use an en dash with the word “from”. The construct “Reg worked from 1994–2006 at…” is wrong. “From” requires a corresponding “to”.
When you need to connect the names of two or more places. For example, “the Calgary–Edmonton corridor”.
When you need to indicate a collaboration or association of some kind. “The Harper–Trudeau contrast…” shows that the names are of two people, whereas “the Harper-Trudeau contrast” implies that the reference is to someone with the double-barrelled named of “Harper-Trudeau”.
When you need to connect two (or more) entities that are already either hyphenated or compounded. My examples here are inspired by examples from the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS).
- Reg was born in the pre–flower power era.
- Reg Gothard–style nonsense.
- A pseudo-intellectual–quasi-authoritative article.
The CMS states that a sentence construction such as the last example would be improved by using a comma rather than the en dash.
The Long and Short
The en dash seems to be a neglected character in many ways. Most people would use a hyphen where an en dash is appropriate, and most readers wouldn’t notice. In fact, The Chicago Manual of Style has this to say: “Ensuring proper use of the en dash… is usually considered the manuscript editor’s responsibility; authors can generally avoid the en dash and use hyphens instead.” Elsewhere, it refers to use of an en dash as “an editorial nicety” which “may go unnoticed by the majority of readers…”
In common with some other punctuation marks, its utility is questioned, and doubtless there are societies for the abolition of the en dash as well as associations for the preservation of the en dash.
Me? I try to use it according to the instructions on the package.
Please Help Improve Yonder Pedant’s Ramblings
- Did I miss a typo? (I’ll feel bad when you tell me, but I’d rather you did tell me!)
- Did I write something that makes you want to turn green and burst out of your shirt?
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If so, please let me know by leaving a comment.