I don’t talk much here about the en dash — the little punctuation mark that looks like it can’t decide if it’s a hyphen or a full-fledged dash.
There are a couple of reasons I avoid the subject. For one thing, I learned about editing in the newspaper world, where en dashes aren’t normally used. Associated Press style doesn’t recognize them, so most news organizations have a long, time-honored tradition of pretending the en dash doesn’t exist.
For another thing, this column runs in newspapers, where en dashes might not come out in print. This technical hurdle is both a cause and result of AP’s policy.
The style authority has a tradition of avoiding computer functions that could garble when transmitted over a news wire, leaving the en dash out in the cold.
And because AP doesn’t recommend using en dashes, newspapers haven’t had much reason to make sure their typesetting processes can handle them. So when a writer types an en dash, there’s reason to worry it won’t come out looking right.
However, in book publishing, whose practices are enshrined in the Chicago Manual of Style, the en dash is a member in good standing of the punctuation team. And slowly over the years, I’ve grown rather fond of it. Maybe with a little primer, you will, too.
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.)
But in graphic elements like charts and graphs, en dashes can work perfectly to join numbers.
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.”
Another job of the en dash is to sort of hyphenate things that are already hyphenated: non-English–speaking people. Here, you would use a hyphen after “non,” while an en dash after “English” indicates different levels of connection between the terms.
In my mind, the en dash is more like a hyphen, which connects words to other words (or prefixes), as in well-known and anti-establishment. The em dash connects whole sentence elements — the way this clause is attached to the previous one with a dash.
But if, after all this, you still don’t want to use the en dash, you can get away with just using a hyphen instead. After all, that’s what AP says to do.