Commonly Confused Words: En Dash Vs. Em Dash

by | Sep 17, 2019 | Commonly Confused Words, GrammarSpot, Writing Tips | 0 comments

Commonly Confused Words: En Dash Vs. Em Dash

by | Sep 17, 2019 | Commonly Confused Words, GrammarSpot, Writing Tips | 0 comments

I was thrilled beyond measure when I discovered the meaning behind the terms “em” and “en” while researching this article. The em is a typography unit equal to the current point size of the type. (Have I lost you?) In other words, if you have a 14-point typeface, one em equals 14 points. The en is half of that unit. In a contest of length featuring en dash vs em dash, em is the clear winner.


The fun doesn’t stop there. An ell is an antiquated tailor’s and clothmonger’s measurement. That means you can recite over one-tenth of the English alphabet in order by pronouncing the names of units of length. Ell, em, en — oh, my! Since that’s probably not what you came here to discover, let’s get down to business.


How Do You Use the En Dash Vs. Em Dash?

The en dash and em dash are often misused. Let’s talk about how to properly use them.

definition of em dash vs en dash


How To Use the Em Dash

Use the em dash to replace other punctuation, especially commas, parentheses and colons. It can also indicate missing words or parts of words.


Replacing commas, parentheses and colons is a common use for em dashes. However, it’s best to use them when formal rigor isn’t necessary. Dashes are usually considered emphatic. As for the second usage, replacing missing or omitted words, that would definitely be something you should approach your editor about before attempting in professional writing.


Replacing Punctuation

Using the em dash could be an alternative if your style guide doesn’t allow parentheses. It can also replace commas in appositives to clarify a sentence. Colons can be stuffy and boring unless they’re in a Star Wars movie title, so let the em dash stand in if you need some flair.



Here are some sentences that show various opportunities for dash usage. There are some minor issues with tone in the first two, and with clarity in the second. See if you can spot them.

  1. As an experienced marriage counselor, I can attest to a single fact: Han (not Luke) was a good match for Leia.
  2. Sales are up 40% from last month, but here’s the really good news: Profits are up 200%.
  3. She took the locket, her father’s gift, which she treasured, and inspected it.


Below are the edits with dashes. The first edit highlights the contrasting thought and slightly changes the timing of the joke:

  1. As an experienced marriage counselor, I can attest to a single fact: Han — not Luke — was a good match for Leia.


The second tweak adds a dramatic delay and a casual feel at the end of the sentence:

      2. Sales are up 40% from last month, but here’s the really good news — profits are up 200%.


The third example is clearer now that the description of the watch is set off with a different type of punctuation:

      3. She took the locket — her father’s gift, which she treasured — and inspected it.


Replacing Words

Some people use dashes to replace omitted words, especially when attempting to preserve the integrity of quotes or transcribed language. Replace your censored, unintelligible or otherwise unspeakable content with two or three em dashes.

  • Police reported that Mr. B——, the scrivener, preferred not to leave work.
  • Charlie said, “It’s been ages since I’ve eaten this many french-fried po———s.”
  • On the bathroom door remained a single mysterious glyph, scratched and weathered beyond legibility: “WOM——N.”


How To Use the En Dash

In the competition of em vs. en dash, old shorty has the short end of the stick in terms of both physical length and usage. The en dash’s proper uses are more limited than the em dash — when it’s even allowed.


The en dash links ranges of numbers. It also can be used to show connections between two terms.


Denoting Numerical Range

The en dash can replace conjunctions in ranges of numbers. It would typically be spoken as a preposition. (Note that you don’t include spaces on either side of the en dash.)

  • Travel dates are June 21–24.
  • Please read pages 110–6,030 by Monday. (You might pronounce this as, “Please read pages one-ten to sixty-thirty by Monday.”)
  • The Palmyrene Empire, AD 270–273, was great while it lasted.


Joining Terms

If you’re not following AP style basics, you could use an en dash to link independent hyphenated terms. You could also use it to link concepts in compound modifiers. Here are some examples.

  • The peanut-butter–cashew-butter divide was growing wider in the sandwich community.
  • Let’s do a 70–50-50 split.
  • There were plenty of advantages for the stockholders in the four-way Northeast–East-West–Northern–National-East merger.
  • Your presence is cordially requested at the Clinton-Kennedy–Roosevelt-Rockefeller wedding.


How To Use Em Dash Vs. En Dash in AP Style

Let’s talk more about using dashes in AP style. First off, just say “no” to en dashes when following the AP Stylebook. Em dashes are fair game, however.

Here’s a questionably helpful quote from AP’s twitter account: “We use hyphens and dashes in the ways that hyphens and em dashes generally are used.” By way of a refresher, that means replacing various types of punctuation with em dashes.


It’s always a little scary when AP decides to let out the reins, right? There is one common mistake to avoid for AP style: Don’t forget to put spaces on either side of the em dash. That’s the convention used throughout this article and in many newspapers.

  • One thing was clear from the 4-by-6-foot American flag she waved above her head — Independence Day was near.
  • Despite his best baker-pâtissier efforts — he had sifted, pre-mixed, folded gently and waited silently — the souffle still collapsed.


How To Type En Dash and Em Dash

On your computer, you can start jotting out em dashes and en dashes pretty easily with minimal setup. There’s a quick cheat sheet for the major operating systems in the table below. This should let you type these characters in any application — not just word processors.


Em Dash

En Dash


Option + Shift + Hyphen

Option + Hyphen


Hold Alt + Fn, then type 0151 and release

Hold Alt + Fn, then type 0150 and release


Compose + three hyphens

Compose + three hyphens and a period


Microsoft Word and other word-processor users can get things done more easily: Dashes are part of autoformat. There are also some program-specific shortcuts. Mac users don’t need to make any changes — they can just use the system shortcut listed above.

Word Processor

Em Dash

En Dash

Microsoft Word (using numpad)

Ctrl + Alt + Minus

Ctrl + Minus

Microsoft Word (autocorrect)

Two hyphens, then continue typing

One hyphen, then continue typing

OpenOffice (autocorrect)

Two hyphens, then continue typing

Not available


Other than this built-in capacity, most word processors have the ability to allow custom keyboard shortcuts. You could simply find an ergonomic and available combo, then change the em dash’s current setting. If you get stuck, try starting by searching your program’s help documentation for the word “keyboard.”


A Dash of Caution

If you’re a professional freelance writer, remember that your editors and publishers might have something to say about this particular punctuation. Goodness knows Emily Dickinson’s publishers had qualms — many of her dashes were removed, or at least nerfed, to make things easier. In any case, I hope you enjoyed this look at the uses of en dash vs. em dash. Dash over to the comments to share your thoughts about colons’ stodginess or the usefulness of the en dash.

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John Bishop

John Bishop is a poet and a marketing writer for the legal and real estate professions.
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