The En Dash

An en dash is roughly the same width as the capital letter N. Compare that to an em dash, which is about as wide as (you guessed it) an M. They’re both wider than a hyphen — the shrimp of the bunch.

On a Mac computer, you make an en dash by hitting the hyphen key while holding down the option key. For an em dash, hold down both the shift and option keys while striking the hyphen key. In Windows, an en dash is made with the control and minus keys, while an em dash is made with the control, alt and minus keys.

The en dash’s duties, like its size, are sort of in between the em dash and the hyphen. It’s often used for number ranges, like “fiscal year 2020–2021.” It can even mean “up to and including” or “through,” as in “Students ages 10–15 can enroll.”

But there are problems with this practice. For one, old-timey editors like me might have a serious (serious) problem with symbols used in place of words.

I, for one, never allow a “10–15.” I change it to “10 to 15.” The thinking here is that readers chugging along in a written work are in a my-brain-is-reading-words mode, not in a my-brain-is-translating-symbols-into-words mode. (And don’t get me started on the ampersand.)

If you’re going to use en dashes in running text, take this Chicago Manual warning to heart.

“For the sake of parallel construction, the word ‘to’ or ‘through’ (or ‘until’), never the en dash, should be used if the word ‘from’ precedes the first element in such a pair; similarly, ‘and’ should be used if ‘between’ precedes the first element.” In other words, “between 10–15” is a no-no, as is “from 10–15.”

Here’s my recent column on the en dash.

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