By popular demand (i.e. one of you asked, and I thank you for that), here's a post about the counterpart to the em dash and the hyphen. Let's get to know the en dash, a special character with a specific function in writing.

What's an En Dash

An en dash is one of the punctuation marks that most people see all the time, but rarely think about how to use correctly. Here it is: –

Fun fact: the reason the en and em dashes have those names are because of their lengths. An em dash (—) is about the length of the letter m, and an en dash (–) is the length of the letter n.

Isn't that fun? Now you have a conversation starter for cocktail parties. Let's look at one of the most misunderstood types of dashes. 

When to Use an En Dash

The en dash is used when connecting ranges, and it replaces “to” in those ranges.

You might have relatives aged 2–52, or a flight to catch from Austin–Detroit, or a baseball game that your team wins 4–2. In all of those circumstances, you would be using an en dash.

How to Create an En Dash

The en dash isn't a key on your typical computer keyboard, so here's a quick guide to help you type them correctly.

If you are on a Mac or iOS device, press option and the hyphen (-) key to create the en dash.

In Windows, there are a few ways to do it. Microsoft Word will automatically replace a hyphen with an en dash if you add a space before and after it. If you type “I'm flying from Austin [space] [hyphen] [space] Detroit,” then Word automatically makes the hyphen an en dash. Then you need to go remove the spaces. (Annoying, I know.)

If you have a number keypad, you can use the shortcut alt+0150 to create the en dash.

And finally, you can add an en dash from the symbols menu. Click on “Insert” and then“Symbols.” Click “more symbols” and find the en dash. Press “insert” to add it to your document.

In the current version of Google Docs, you can simply type the hyphen key twice (no spaces), and it automatically creates the en dash (unless you are using an international keyboard).

And if you'd like to copy and paste an en dash, copy away: –

Practice Telling Them Apart

Let's line up all three punctuation marks in a row for a quick comparison:

em dash

– en dash


See the difference?

Take a few minutes to play with how to create hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes in your favorite word processing tool. Do you think you have the hyphen, en dash, and em dash under control? Complete the practice below and find out.

Dash conventions aren't always easy to remember, but the en dash is one of the easiest. Remember that it shows a range and replaces the word “to” when showing that distance. 

What tricks do you use to keep your hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes straight? Share in the comments.

Need more grammar help? After you master all of the dashes and hyphens the world has to offer, check out my favorite tool, ProWritingAid, which helps find grammar problems and even generates reports to help improve my writing. ProWritingAid works with Word, Scrivener, Google Docs, and web browsers. Also, be sure to use my coupon code to get 20 percent off: WritePractice20

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Write for fifteen minutes about someone running to catch a flight. Use hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes to describe what caused the delay, where they're going, and what bar they're going to when they finally get to their destination.

Post your scene in the Pro Practice Workshop and give feedback to a few fellow writers. Not a member? Join us

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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