Em dash vs En dash
Em or En? What’s the difference? How do you use them?
Once upon a time the humble comma catered for most of our parenthetical needs, but now the curvy comma has been usurped by the elegant dash.
- The em dash — is the length of the letter m
- The en dash – is the length of the letter n
- The hyphen or minus – is shorter than both
How to insert one
- Option 1
En dash = [Ctrl] + – (minus on number keypad, not hyphen)
Em dash = [Ctrl] + [Alt] + – (minus on number keypad, not hyphen)
- Option 2
Click insert on the Word ribbon, symbol, special characters, choose em or en.
- Option 3
Create macros to insert the symbols for you.
Parenthetical use (both em and en dash)
Parentheses help separate extra explanatory or qualifying information from the rest of a sentence – an aside, if you will, that isn’t essential to the meaning of a sentence, but one that provides an elaboration or adds colour.
In the past, a bracketing set of commas would have served equally as well, but the em and en dash have become a more popular and elegant alternative in both fiction and non-fiction writing, as long as they’re not sprinkled too liberally like hundreds and thousands.
Most Australian publishers prefer a spaced en dash for parenthesis, but you can use an unspaced em dash, as long as you’re consistent. It’s simply a style choice.
Examples spaced en dashes
The journey – a never-ending pall on my senses – took forty-eight hours longer than expected.
If she’d accepted my help – and she never would because she’s just so stubborn – she would have passed the exam.
Examples unspaced em dashes
The journey—a never-ending pall on my senses—took forty-eight hours longer than expected.
If she’d accepted my help—and she never would because she’s just so stubborn—she would have passed the exam.
Information at the end of the sentence (both en and em dash)
Like parentheticals, both the en and em dash can be used to add extra information to the end of sentence as well.
He flipped open the fob watch – a nice little steal that would bring a pretty penny.
Something smooth and green caught her eye—a heart-shaped piece of sea glass her daughter would love for her collection.
Interrupted speech or thought (em dash only)
When a character is speaking or thinking and they’re interrupted by another character or an action, an em dash is used not the en dash.
Example speech interrupted by dialogue
David frowned. “I asked you to put the lid back on when you’re done. It’s going to—”
“I know, I know,” Gail said. “I’m not finished yet.”
Example speech interrupted by action
David frowned. “I asked you to put the lid back on when you’re done. It’s going to—” He spun around as a door blew open behind him.
Examples thought interrupted action
Carly picked up the piece of bread. Sheesh, could it get any drier? I wonder if— Scott knocked the crust from her hand.
Example speech interrupted by a different thought
Carly picked up the piece of bread. Sheesh, could it get any drier? I wonder if we could buy— No. Freya said there was no money left.
Tip: There’s no need to tell the reader the character has been interrupted – the em dash does that work for you.
Tip: If the speech or thought is trailing off instead of being interrupted, use an ellipsis instead.
Speech or thought trailing off or pausing
Unlike an interruption, trailing off or paused speech or thoughts are followed by an ellipsis.
Example speech trailing off
Greg looked up from his seat on the log. “You realise that I never …” He lowered his head. What was the point? She wouldn’t believe him anyway.
Example speech pausing
“I don’t know. All this time I expected … some sort of … well, I really didn’t know what to expected to be honest.”
Example thought trailing off
Sally took the glass he offered, wondering if it was safe to drink. What if he’s poisoned it? What if … She took a big gulp. There was only one way to find out.
Example thought pausing
Reaching the top of the hill, she stood panting. This is it, she thought. I don’t think I can go much further. I’m so … so freakin’ tired.
Spans, ranges, co-ordinate nouns and prefixes (en dash only)
The en dash is also used for other technical aspects such as number ranges and date spans. You can read the full range of uses and examples on this page of the Australian Style Manual.