I present to you: the en dash

OK, so I managed to terrify a bunch of writers yesterday, sorry. But, all joking aside, you now know not to hyphenate with an adverb and, as much as it pains me to say it, it’s not a big deal.

Now let’s talk about a punctuation mark you may not even know exists. I’m talking about the en dash. Certain people rely on Word (ahem, Cougar) to determine which kind of dash belongs in a sentence. But you have control of this decision. An en dash is a dash that is typographically the length of an “n” and can be represented by two hyphens. It is used in the following situations:

1) Number ranges. The en dash is a substitute for the word “through.” For example, “Read pages 5–38 for your homework, Desdemona.” However, you don’t use it if you have the word “between” or “from”; for example, “I lived in Eastern Bora Bora from 1999 to 2003” or “Between 7 and 8 a.m. I read my email, drink my coffee, and write a blog post.”

2) This one is rare, but sometimes you’ll come across an open compound (or words that are never hyphenated) and you need to hyphenate after the open compound. In this case, use an en dash. I call this the Civil War–era rule. There is no other way for me to remember it. It is also used when linking two hyphenated modifiers, as in “your half-empty–half-full philosophy is ridiculous.”

3) Creative writers, ignore this one; it is mostly used in science writing. If you are writing something more technical, you use an en dash to show a peer relationship between two objects, as in “a cost–benefit analysis” or the “blood–brain barrier.” You also might use it when you have a theory or test that is named after two people, as in the “Runge–Kutta method.”

Questions, comments, have I scared you all?

11 responses to “I present to you: the en dash

  1. Until now I had no idea that there was such a creature as the en dash. I’m with Averil, although, if Cougar can explain how I can get Word to make these decisions, I’m all ears.

    • According to Cougar (who is uncharacteristically silent), she just adds some dashes and lets Word sort it out. However, if you go to “Insert” and then “Symbol” and then “Special Character,” you can choose the sort of dash needed. It’s all about control. (Clauses like control.)

  2. Pingback: Em dash—how difficult is it? | Fangs and Clause

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