Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Want to learn how to use an Em and En dash? Need to know how to type an Em and En dash on your keyboard? Read on for all the important stuff you need to know...
I recently started a poll over on Instagram to see what my followers were unsure about. Without a doubt, when to use dashes in a sentence won – hands down. They can be tricky little things, but when you get the hang of them, they’ll transform the flow of your writing.
Dashes have numerous uses but most commonly they’re used to separate a set of words (not different parts of words like the hyphen). I regularly see professional writers using the hyphen to separate sets of words when they should be using a specific kind of dash.
First of all, you need to know what kinds of dashes are actually there and how to get them! There are three kinds of dash: the Em dash (—), the En dash (–), and the double hyphen (--). Depending on your keyboard, there are certain shortcuts to get them which I’ll explain later on.
Which dash you use can depend on where you or your target audience lives. Usually, the Em dash is preferred in American English and is used with no spaces on either side, where the En dash is more common in British English and has a space before and after it. The key thing to remember though is to remain consistent. If you prefer one over the other, just make sure you use the same throughout your piece. If your work is going to an editor, let the editor know if you’ve chosen to use a specific dash – so we know you’ve done it intentionally.
When to use an Em dash
I like to think of the Em dash as the cool kid. The one that fits in when other punctuation would look cringe or too formal. This dash is the longest of the dashes and is roughly the size of the letter M. That makes it easy enough to remember, right? More often than not, the Em dash is used instead of using parentheses (or, simply put, brackets like these).
Example: Hayley is afraid of two things—feet and bad grammar.
Ok, I’m not really afraid of feet, but you get the idea. If it was a formal piece, then a colon would be used instead of the Em dash.
The Em dash can also be used to offset an important bit of information mid-sentence.
Example: Please, call my manager—John Smith—to cancel the appointment.
In this example, the Em dash is replacing commas on either side of the manager’s name. It’s just an informal way to highlight key points in a piece of writing.
Basically, using an Em dash creates stronger emotion for the reader due to its informal nature. If you’re wanting to appeal to your everyday person, as most copywriters do, it’s best to use the Em dash instead of more rigid, formal punctuation.
Another way it can be used is to show an interruption in speech or thought. We’ve all seen it, although you probably didn’t notice.
Example: “I don’t care what she says, I’m not—”
“Yes, you are!”
Clearly, the speaker has been interrupted. This is obviously used more in fiction, but worth noting if you’re about to dip your toe into that world.
When to use the En dash
As I said above, the En dash is generally more suitable when writing in British English and is about the length of the letter n. This dash has a space on either side, where the Em dash generally doesn’t. Basically, the En dash is used in the same way as the Em dash – it’s used to replace parentheses/commas in less-informal contexts.
Here’s how it looks if you’re writing for a British audience:
Hayley is afraid of two things – feet and bad grammar.
In the rest of the world, the En dash is used to show a range. This is a common mistake I find when proofreading, as people don’t realise that a range shouldn’t have a hyphen. Nope. No hyphen, it needs to be an En dash.
Example: Incorrect: The course is 12-2pm.
Correct: The course is 12–2pm.
If you have a “from” and “to” situation, it’s time to use the En dash. But it’s important to note, you don’t need to ACTUALLY put “from” before the range. If you really want to use “from” or “to” then you just omit the En dash completely.
Example: The course runs from 12pm to 2pm.
Keyboard shortcuts to get the Em and En dash in Word (Windows):
Em dash shortcut for Word on a Windows computer:
Press Alt+0151 or Ctrl+Alt+Minus on your keypad.
En dash shortcut for Word on a Windows computer:
Press Alt+0150 or Ctrl+Minus on your keypad.
If you’re writing for the web in HTML, you need to manually input these codes to get the correct dash. It won’t even allow you to copy and paste from Word (sorry!)
En dash: /–/ or /–/
Em dash: /—/ or /—/
How to get the Em/En dash symbols on your phone:
Many don’t realise that you’ll probably have access to these symbols on your phone. Here’s a short video to show you:
All you need to do is hold down the hyphen key on your phone keyboard. It should bring up the other options to choose from! You’re welcome.
So, there you have it. Em and En dashes are really great ways to communicate your point in an informal, chatty way. Let me know if this helps.
If you're still unsure, feel free to drop me an email so we can chat more about how I can help you.