Polish your writing with this often-missed punctuation mark.

Here’s my first post on punctuation, and I’m starting with a mechanical, nuts-and-bolts topic that is useful to writers and proofreaders. It’s also a topic that was a revelation to me—I’d never run across explicit teaching about dashes in my education or teaching until I did a proofreader’s course. But the en dash was there all the time, discreetly doing its job, letting itself be mistaken for hyphens and confused with em dashes.

So first, what is an en dash? It’s a seldom-appreciated punctuation mark often usurped by a hyphen (or two hyphens), and it is the width of a capital N in types and fonts. For comparison:

  • ‐ hyphen
  • en dash
  • — em dash

What do I use an en dash for?

Correct usage of the en dash is fairly straightforward. To simplify, I will give it to you in bullet points. Please note that I am following The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) here, which is the standard style guide for book publishing in the US, however, The Associated Press Stylebook does not use en dashes at all.

Use en dashes:

  • To mean to:
    • Our Madrid–New York flight departs at 08:00.
    • Congress voted 400–30 to pass the Fairness for 9/11 Families Act on September 30, 2022.
    • The Seattle Seahawks beat the Denver Broncos 17–16.
  • In ranges meaning from x to y (up to and including/through):
    • In a 1997–2015 study, the EIA found that most American families owned 1–3 television sets.
    • Monday–Friday, American History 312 will be held 09:00–10:00.
    • The company’s logo includes the range A–Z (i.e., “everything from A to Z”).
    • Please see Copywriting for Business Blogs (pp. 88–95).
  • For unfinished ranges:
    • Arturo Pérez Reverte (1951– ) is Spain’s best known historical fiction writer.
  • For compound adjectives when one of the elements consists of an open compound or when both elements consist of hyphenated compounds:
    • Good Lord Bird is a John Brown–inspired, pre–Civil War historical novel and TV series. (Open compounds)
    • Many students in Spain go to semi-private–semi-public schools. (Two connected hyphenated compounds)
  • In British English, the en dash is often used (with spaces before and after) instead of an em dash. (I will discuss em dashes in my post, Getting the Versatile Em Dash Right).
    • “More than 1.5 million supporters, from 180 countries, now power us financially – keeping [The Guardian] open to all, and fiercely independent.”

Mistakes in en dash usage

The most common error is to use a hyphen instead of an en dash. However, other errors can sometimes be hard to spot; copyeditors and proofreaders often need to double-check if an en dash or em dash is being used.

Be careful not to include words like from or between in combination with en dash ranges:

  • Our class tomorrow will be from 9:00–10:00. (Better: “9:00–10:00” or “from 9:00 to 10:00.”)
  • Our marketing team travels from London–New York on Saturday. (Better: “from London to New York.”)
  • The price of eggs rose by 38 percent between July 2021–July 2022. (Better: “between July 2021 and July 2022.”)

Codes and shortcuts for writing en dashes

There is no key for the humble en dash on your keyboard, but here is how to add one to your text:

  • In Windows: hold down the ALT key and type 0150 (this is the easiest and most versatile).
  • In Microsoft Word:
    • Use the command “insert symbol” and then select the en dash,
    • Use the keyboard shortcut: CONTROL + minus sign on the numeric keypad (you can add your own customized shortcuts), or
    • Go to Options>Proofing>Auto Correct Options and set .en to be automatically corrected as the en dash sign. After that, just type .en in Word.
  • In HTML and WordPress: write – manually into your code. WordPress sometimes has a mind of its own with dashes. In the edit window, click on the contextual block menu, select edit as html, and write – where you need it. WordPress will convert it to a visual en dash when you switch back to visual editing for the block.

For more contexts and Apple users, see “How to make dashes” (Wikipedia)

I hope that clears up the most common questions about en dashes in your writing and proofreading. See also my post Getting the Versatile Em Dash Right. Soon to come: posts about compound words and hyphens.

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