Dash it Anyways! “Em” and “En Dashes” in Today’s Blog Posting . . . .

Trying to distinguish between the correct grammatical rules for hyphens and dashes can be mind-boggling. Two brief (and excellent) computer editing tips from Timothy McAdoo for the APA Style Blog have brought order again to my editing work . . . . (And thanks to Wilf Popoff to sending me links to McAdoo’s work).

The APA Style Guide says that hyphens are NOT dashes and shouldn’t be used interchangeably. There is a subtle distinction between them, McAdoo clarifies, and dashes can take various forms.

First, what is an “em dash?” Em dashes are “used to set off an element added to amplify or to digress from the main clause.” The em dash appears as a “longer dash” that creates a sense of physical separation between the phrases. It’s perfect to use for text “that you want to stand out.” It is not to be confused with hyphens or “en dashes.”

An “em dash” can be used to set off a phrase at the end of a sentence (“writing well—but not deeply. . . .”). Or they can set off a phrase, “midsentence—as a technique used for emphasis—“(adapting McAdoo’s examples). This use of an “em dash” allows for digression or interruption of thoughts.

But “overusing an em dash . . . weakens the flow of material” (Publication Manual of the APA). So inserting them infrequently is best.

To complicate things slightly, there is no keyboard button for an “em” dash. So on a PC, you must hold “Control” and “Alt” keys together and then type the minus sign on the far right side of the numeric keypad on your keyboard.


Now, an “en dash” is a shorter dash that is used to demonstrate:

  • items of equal weight (e.g. “Chicago–London flight”)
  • page ranges (e.g. “Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 35, 244–295”) and
  • other types of ranges (e.g. 16–30 kHz).

“En dashes” should not be confused with hyphens, which are used in compound words (e.g. “self-esteem” uses a hyphen).

Few keyboards seem to be created with a single hyphen key for an “en dash.” So you have to create it on a PC by holding down “Control” and typing the minus sign on the far right side of the numeric keypad, on your keyboard.

Of course, more information is available from the Publication Manual itself. But these are the core rules.

Do you find “em” and “en” dashes confusing in your writing or editing? What strategy do you use for differentiating between them and between hyphens, as well? Please write and share your stories: I’d be pleased to deepen this conversation!

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