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Hyphen, N-dash, M-dash

What is the difference between a hyphen, an N-dash and an M-dash? How do you properly use them?

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The hyphen is used to hyphenate compound words and between non-continuing numbers, e.g., phone numbers.

The en dash is used to "connect continuing, or inclusive, numbers — dates, time, or reference numbers." [Chicago Manual of Style, sec. 5.115]

The em dash is used "to denote a sudden break in thought that causes an abrupt change in sentence structure." [Chicago Manual of Style, sec. 5.106] When typing, it's common to use two hyphens for an em dash. In HTML, you can also use the entity: "&&035;151;".

giacomo July 24, 2003 @ 12:25PM

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Sorry about the strange characters in the comment. This should post and read well.

The hyphen is used to hyphenate compound words and between non-continuing numbers, e.g., phone numbers.

The en dash is used to "connect continuing, or inclusive, numbers -- dates, time, or reference numbers." [Chicago Manual of Style, sec. 5.115]

The em dash is used "to denote a sudden break in thought that causes an abrupt change in sentence structure." [Chicago Manual of Style, sec. 5.106] When typing, it's common to use two hyphens for an em dash. In HTML, you can also use the entity: "—".

giacomo July 24, 2003 @ 12:42PM

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In case you're wondering where the names come from, an en dash is the length of a standard length "n" character in most typesets and an em dash is the length of a standard length "m" in most typesets.

ares58 August 19, 2003 @ 6:45AM

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Um, "anonymous" was me, below there.

speedwell2 December 1, 2004 @ 3:58PM

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What about using a dash of some sort in a title instead of a colon. Which would it be? My PC wants to change the hyphen I have been using to an n-dash, but I want it to stay a hyphen (I think).

An M dash would be inappropriate. The idea is to convey that the specific subsection is a subordinate part of the section, but seems to need to include the section words becasue all sections in the document have the same series of subsections, and need to avoid confusion. An example:

Section title:
Airframe & Engine Analyzer Menu

Subsection titles:
Airframe & Engine Analyzer Menu - User Input Fields

Airframe & Engine Analyzer Menu - Frame Navigation

Airframe & Engine Analyzer Menu - Page Navigation

bhenderson October 6, 2005 @ 12:02PM

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Is there a way to create a true m or n dash on a PC. It is possible on a Mac, but there must be a way to do it on the PC also.

On the Mac, if I type option + shift along with the dash key I get an m dash. If I type option and the dash key I get an n dash.

Thanks for your help.

newmandesign October 29, 2005 @ 6:23AM

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What about spaces? I've long been confused about whether to whether to space around dashes -- m-dashes I suppose -- or put them right up against the words. MS Word automatically changes a dash surrounded by space to an n-dash, while a "--" connecting words becomes an m-dash.

gandalf December 14, 2005 @ 1:02PM

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When do you use N Dash and M Dash between the sentenses.

kiran.ramesh May 20, 2006 @ 8:14AM

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Mon dieu! As a poet, the thought of getting rid of the m dash is horrifying. So, no. We can't do without the m dash. :)

kcbp77 November 1, 2006 @ 1:28PM

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Okay, am having a fight with a publisher about 'M' dashes and long dashes. She keeps replacing m dashes with long dashes in the copy—it's awful (and driving me nuts).

Can't find the reference for correct long dash usage anywhere and I'm losing the war. Help!

pam November 10, 2006 @ 2:10PM

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As a typesetter (and the Senior Creative Graphic Designer at my company) I disagree with the assertion that there should be no no space on either side of the em dash. The whole point of typesetting is readability, and it is definitely more readable with spaces on either side. It also makes the typesetters job more doable because all professional typesetting programs force the words on wither side of the em dash to stay together on the same line, if there are no spaces on either side. This makes for ugly looking rag on left justified text, and awkwardly tracked lines when using full justification. The only alternative is to manually put in soft returns, and that is just not possible on a 456 page book on a tight schedule.

Gavin September 8, 2007 @ 12:25PM

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Use hyphen.

M-dash with spaces before and after it means pause or separation: "The sun was rising --- a red, hot plate". M-dash without spaces means range: "Please make shure you complete excersize in Jan---Mar". There could be also numbers instead of months. It also depends on country, where you plan publishing your text. For example, russian typography took many things from french, including m-dash and quotation marks. Find older books that were published before era of personal computers, when uneducated people started to play typesetters without eye of the Editor ;-). I have never used n-dashes, only hyphens and m-dashes.

trapmaker November 18, 2007 @ 11:09AM

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Ian--thanks so much for the PC keyboard commands. MSWord Help explains the auto-format with the hyphen or double-hyphen and spaces, but doesn't mention ctrl+minus!
And FWIW, I like the m-dash as distinct from the n-dash and hyphen as long as it's consistently used. Given how hard it is to find and use them, however, no wonder many documents are incorrect! And it appears there are different practices across countries, history and typesetters.

emm4 January 23, 2008 @ 3:03PM

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Google took me here, luckily.

So, for you professional editors/writers, will it be useful if we support these kinds of dashes/hyphens separately when we develop our software?

* en dash - using the glyph in the font
* em dash - using the glyph in the font
* 'n'-width dash - stretching the length of hyphen to the width of 'n' of the font, as some fonts do not have en dash glyph in the font
* 'm'-width dash - stretching the length of hyphen to the width of 'm' of the font
* hyphen - just the standard '-' char, right next to '0' (if US Qwerty keyboard layout)
* figure dash - the width of a number or the proceeding number if not fixed width font
* negative sign - use the hyphen (which is shorter than the regular mathematical minus symbol) on the same height with other operators
* minus symbol - same width, center line aligned to the center of plus, multiplication, division operator signs, left-right spacing based on TeX rule

If yes, how would you rate the usefulness/priority?
This is mainly for our equation editor software but it looks most of the concepts/rules should be borrowed from the publishing side.

Thank you for all the info here.

support March 26, 2008 @ 8:07AM

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In Adobe Illustrator for an "en-dash" (shorter dash) hold down the

Alt and type in the numeric keypad 0150.

For an "em-dash" (long dash) hold down the Alt and type in the numeric keypad 0151.

info May 17, 2009 @ 4:51PM

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Gavin Anderson above, at Sept. 8. 2007, has nailed it. The sticky m dash (no spaces surrounding) makes a solid, unwieldy character string out of two words and can wreak havoc on either rag right or justified line lengths. A floating m dash is oddly discontinuous looking; the floating n, with a space on either side, is about right. It's all got to do with what announces itself clearly, first, and then pulls the eye forward.

I notice Gavin Anderson wears a tam o'shanter, in addition to his typographical sagacity. Is he married? or if so, does he have a brother?

chironsdaughter July 6, 2009 @ 3:15PM

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There are no spaces before and after an em dash.

ButchWarnner July 21, 2009 @ 10:30AM

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Wow a 6-year thread. That is incredible. I enjoyed all the various comments. What was of particular interest is that some of those that posted really seemed to care one way or another. Arguing with a publisher over an n-dash or m-dash. Not worth it in my opinion. Since it is obvious from the various posts that just about anything is valid, it really does not matter. The publishers "Bible" and the Chicago Manual of Style conlict.
Basically it all comes down to personal preference.
By the way, I use them all. Just depends on what, in MY opinion, looks good. And honestly, If someone does it differently thats fine with me.

dskimball622 August 18, 2009 @ 2:50PM

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I don't think you can simply 'do away' with an m-dash because you think it is ugly! What's next in the beauty pageant of grammar? Should the semi-colon be nervous? who died and made the hyphen the fairest of them all?

Regardless of how the things look on the page, they are to effectively communicate ideas, thoughts and expressions. Don't gag yourself by getting rid of punctuation just because it is buck-toothed or balding.

For the record, I use m-dashes with space at either side otherwise it looks like you are linking rather than separating. I understand US usage may be different.

toolostinlondon March 4, 2010 @ 5:16AM

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I shake my head at the misguided calls to abolish the m dash. Correct grammar promotes clarity of thought and communication, and the m dash serves that goal admirably. Disapproval of its use doesn't make one sound efficient, but the opposite.

debchasteen March 10, 2010 @ 8:33PM

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I'm with Deb and Justinito on this one. The em-dash–and really, let us at least agree on a spelling for it–is useful, if sometimes overused, punctuation. It was particularly popular with nineteenth and early twentieth-century writers. Kipling loved it, as did Doyle, who often abused it:

“He writhed his hands together as he stood, and his features were in a perpetual jerk–now smiling, now scowling, but never for an instant in repose.”

Doyle was a rotten writer, much as I admire his occasional phrase, like “perpetual jerk.” A modern writer would use a colon in place of the em-dash, and cut a third of the words. Hence Hemingway.

Over-used, the em-dash can give the impression of a scattered mind, of distracted thinking. Journalists should avoid it–and avoid asides in general–but other writers retain full licence. But use it wisely–you are only interrupting yourself.

douglas.bryant March 10, 2010 @ 11:52PM

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But Douglas -- you are using an en-dash in your own post, not an em-dash.

chironsdaughter March 13, 2010 @ 8:03AM

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You are right! I was misinformed of what the proper keystrokes are. I appreciate the correction—thanks!

douglas.bryant March 13, 2010 @ 12:29PM

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I have googled a bit on hyphens and dashes after someone corrected my writing and my, there's quite a bit to it, it appears.

It is nice to have all this wealth in typesetting and punctuation, but the question remains: do readers know all this (I didn't), and if not, is the use of all possible dashes with or without space intuitive to the user? The usefulness of punctuation in getting a meaning across is only useful as long as that meaning is understood. As the target audience usually does not consist purely of writers and typesetters, maybe some consideration for the general public is in order.

In my ignorance I agree with the em-dash with spaces, otherwise it joins words together instead of separating them. The only sensible usage of an em-dash or long dash without space I could think of is a thought broken off in the middle of a word, like thi---

But then, ignorance is bliss I suppose. I wouldn't argue with a publisher though, when in Rome etc...

etimmerman May 30, 2010 @ 10:52PM

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When it comes to punctuation, there are two related but distinct sets of considerations, and they don't always jive. Typographically, one always has to consider the variety of things that have been unfolding in this thread for (!) five years; this has altogether to do with the way the information gives itself up to the reader visually. But psycholinguistically, punctuation is a (very rudimentary) replacement notation for paralanguage, or the many non-verbal, meaning-bearing variations in pitch, vocal pressure, enunciation speed, pauses and elision, among other "expressors," that cannot be transmitted visually since they are almost exclusively auditory in nature. (I say "almost" because paralanguage is decoded in tandem with facial expression, when the hearer can see the speaker's face. Even so, when the facial expression and the vocal tone do not agree, it is usually the vocal tone that is taken as "true".) Punctuation is only as good as it performs this function; I think anything that puts meaning over more clearly or more subtly is worth considering.

chironsdaughter June 1, 2010 @ 3:02PM

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Right you are, Nigel, and I do know that, though I can't swear it was just a typo.

The main point is that language processing, even in a strong social context of literacy, is first and foremost oral and auditory, and not written and visual, literacy having come very late in the development of the species. So typographical considerations, including punctuation (visually represented paralanguage), should ideally map as closely as possible onto the primary (auditory) form of language, but it's rarely so simple. Punctuation therefore has to negotiate a balance between visual readability, on the one hand, and adequate representation of the completely auditory non-verbal component on the other, so that it can be easily and accurately decoded from print form into mental sound imagery.

The takeaway is that en- and em-dashes, whether floating or squeezed, are only two markers among many in the attempt to represent sound forms as visual symbols so that print can give up its information quickly along a pathway that wasn't primarily made for it. It's ultimately arbitrary just how that is accomplished, but some forms seem to work better than others.

Either that, or it's all in what you get used to . . . no jive.

chironsdaughter June 3, 2010 @ 3:06PM

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example of compound words

maricel_mapa August 17, 2010 @ 4:21AM

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Don't recommend the use of — in HTML. That code, along with all other numeric character references in the 128-159 range, is actually forbidden by the HTML specs. It's still commonly implemented in browsers as an em dash, but this is only done for compatibility. Early web browsers were lax in implementing the standards and didn't fully support Unicode. Instead of interpreting numeric character references according to Unicode (where 151 is a non-printing control character), they incorrectly interpreted them according to the default or selected local character encoding, which was behavior expected by people who primarily authored and viewed documents (HTML and otherwise) in those encodings. On English/Western European versions of Windows this encoding was the "Windows-1252" encoding, which has the em dash assigned to position/byte 151. Coupled with Unicode ignorance and the fact that support for the proper references (— or — or —) was spotty, this led to widespread use of — to signify an em dash. Nowadays, the proper reference should be used.

mike September 11, 2010 @ 7:42PM

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I'd like to mention my own heretical practice of using space after an em-dash, but not before— like this. It's easy on the eyes, and it breaks after the dash in HTML documents.

While on the subject of HTML documents, the UTF-8 code for an em-dash is —

m42 January 3, 2011 @ 10:55PM

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Let me try that again. The UTF-8 code for an em-dash is —

m42 January 3, 2011 @ 10:57PM

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One more time: 8212, preceded by an ampersand and a pound sign, and followed by a semi-colon.

m42 January 3, 2011 @ 10:59PM

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This is a marvelous thread. My thanks to Mike Brown and many others. I am sending the URL to my writer friends.

I was trying to settle an argument with my copy-editor proving that "m" dashes should not be preceded or followed by a space. My copy editor has consistently put in the spaces on the website articles and I am not fond of the spaces, even though most of our stuff appears in readable Georgia. (Ten years ago a friend enjoined me to forswear Times New Roman.) I have just posted an article reconstructed from a lecture recording made some 40 years ago. Talk about "para-language." This article has hundreds of dashes. you can see it for yourself here:

I must also mention I now know why, when two years ago I moved to a website content management system called Joomla [That is Swahili for "I hate you and all culture."] and converted to UTF 8, my old HTML pages showed ugly black question marks wherever my dashes had been rendered by typing Alt + 0+ 151.

So I am grateful to all of you.

Best wishes

fjjwagner January 5, 2011 @ 4:42AM

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Spaces should not be used on either side of an m dash. Period.

debchasteen January 5, 2011 @ 2:43PM

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Fritz Wagner -- I would love to read the article you mention, but it doesn't seem to be accessible through the link you have posted. Any other way to lay hands on it? Author's name, title perhaps, if it was published?

chironsdaughter January 7, 2011 @ 11:24PM

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Mantha —

My apologies. Some days I can't copy and paste a URL. Here is the correct one:

And just for the fun of it I am linking my "Style Page" to this thread.

Best wishes – — -

fjjwagner January 8, 2011 @ 12:18AM

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Ah, great example. Mine get that thick at times -- there's just so much more forward drive in the dashes than there is in parentheses, which could have been used instead of most of them, but would be so stodgy.

chironsdaughter January 11, 2011 @ 4:37AM

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The best article I found so far explaining this:

Article was written for designers, but no jargon used there.

TeMc March 10, 2011 @ 6:44AM

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Getting an En dash in a PC is by Ctrl+minus; and its Ctrl+Alt+minus for an Em dash.

Priyashree July 4, 2011 @ 7:12PM

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I cannot use em or en dashes in a program that I use for work. I had a bit of trouble finding how to override the defaults in MS Word 2010 that I could not just change by clicking on Autocorrect. I had to change the defaults so that I could create my document in Word 2010 and then copy it to the program I use for work. This site told me how to override the em/en defaults:

The info is on the second half of the page.

This helped me. November 8, 2011 @ 8:49AM

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Jon said: There's another good reason to drop the em-dash...When files are converted or transferred, punctuation is often corrupted...." So every time file conversion fails us, we should change the way we write? Pfeh!

dawnA August 29, 2013 @ 10:36AM

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For what it's worth, I stopped wasting time on the differences between hyphens and dashes some years ago. I just use the hyphen ("-") for everything.

My two cents, anyway.

JJMBallantyne August 30, 2013 @ 9:30AM

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There is some history about the use of these dashes with old-fashioned printing machines, such as a linotype. Does anyone know how these machines made dashes?

paula park June 2, 2016 @ 3:42AM

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