What's the deal with hyphens & dashes?

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You know the saying “ignorance is bliss”? Here is your warning to remain blissful about hyphens and dashes and skip this article… read on at your own peril. Once you understand the proper use of hyphens and dashes, their incorrect usage will reach out and slap you in the face.

Three lengths of dashes exist:
the hyphen (-), the en-dash (–), and the em-dash (—)

This is a cheat-sheet on the correct use of hyphens and dashes written with accepted contemporary conventions and tools in mind, and our in-house recommendation on one still contentious dash-related issue.

Three lengths of dashes exist: the shortest is the hyphen (-), then the en-dash (–), and longest is the em-dash (—). An “em” is usually the width of the typeface’s letter ‘M’. An “en” is one-half of an “em.”

Hyphen

The hyphen is used to join things together, example: spine-tingling, 604-868-4838, red-eyed. The hyphen should never have spaces inserted on either side.

En-dash

The en-dash is used to indicate a range of just about anything, example: 1–5, 1967–2009, ninth–eleventh, 5:00–9:00, March–August. The en-dash should not have spaces inserted on either side.

Em-dash

The em-dash keeps things apart — like this.

Use an em-dash (—) to indicate an interruption in the sentence, a change in thought, or a new idea, for example: The best way to become more creative — and we just have to accept that it does take a big commitment — is to regularly repeat the creative activity.

An em-dash can also be used to separate a subordinate, modifying name from the main part of the name as in this example: Simon Fraser University — Burnaby, BC.

Warning, contentious issue ahead: Spaced dashes

The em-dash is traditionally used without spaces on either side of it, but it has become a contentious issue among typographers and both methods have come to be acceptable. The reason it’s debated is that when an em-dash has no spaces—like this—the words on either side seem to merge together and will create awkward ‘rivers’ in a full page of text.

While it still curls the toes of some typographers, spaces on either side of the em-dash may be used at the
designer’s discretion

While it still curls the toes of some typographers, spaces on either side of the em-dash may be used at the designer’s discretion — although small spaces are preferred. I suggest that you choose one method as your standard and be vigilant about doing it that way consistently throughout all your copy. Make it your in-house rule. We’ve chosen to use the spaced em-dash as our standard at Canister.

Typing dashes

Em-dashes and en-dashes do not appear on your keyboard, so you need to use key combinations to enter them. On a Mac you get yourself an em-dash by typing shift-option-dash, and an en-dash with option-dash. On a PC it is bit more awkward: for an em-dash type alt-0151, and alt-0150 for an en-dash.

I like those em-dashes — they’re worth the trouble.