Using the En Dash Correctly

Happy National Punctuation Day! This quirky holiday is celebrated on September 24th primarily in the United States, but is also gaining recognition in other countries, especially Canada. At Sprout English, we decided to do a blog post in honor of this holiday about…wait for it…punctuation!

I wanted to choose a punctuation mark that was difficult for English learners and native English speakers alike. Two things came to mind, based on my many years of teaching, and, more recently, editing: the en dash and the em dash! What are they? How did they get their names? When do we use them? I’ll blog about the en dash here on our Sprout English blog, and I’ll blog about the em dash over on our sister-site’s blog, ESL-Library. I hope these posts will be informative for you and your students!

What is an en dash?

An en dash is an elongated hyphen (about the length of two hyphens) that is used for specific purposes.

Here’s how the dash family looks:

 What is the en dash used for?

The en dash is used primarily for the meaning of “to” to connect numbers and words such as times, dates, places, etc.

Examples:

  • My English class is Monday, 9–11 a.m. (My English class is on Monday, from 9 to 11 a.m.)
  • The students have to read chapters 8–10 for homework. (The students have to read chapters 8 to 10 for homework.)
  • The store is open Monday–Friday. (The store is open Monday to Friday.)
  • There is beautiful scenery on the Vancouver–Nanaimo ferry. (There is beautiful scenery on the Vancouver to Nanaimo ferry.)

 

How did the en dash get its name?

The en dash got its name from the olden days of typesetting. Back before the computer era, when publishers wanted to use this dash, they would make it the same length as the “n” character length of the typeset block. In most modern fonts, too, the en dash is the same length as the letter “n” or “N”.

Where can you find it on your computer?

Windows: Follow this sequence from your top left menu items, or use the shortcut Command and Minus symbol on your number pad for easy access.

Insert → Symbol → Advanced Symbol → Special Characters → 2nd down

Pages: Follow this sequence from your top left menu items. Save the en dash symbol under Favorites for easy access.

Edit → Special Characters → Punctuation → 6th down, 5th across

Most browsers (Chrome, Safari, etc.) and programs: Follow this sequence from your top left menu items. Save the en dash symbol under Favorites for easy access.

Edit → Special Characters → Punctuation → 6th down, 5th across

Should there be spaces around the en dash?

Most people choose not to put spaces around the en dash. The majority of style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, agree.

Example: January–March, not January – March.

I suggest teaching students not to use spaces since this is the norm. For more advanced students, you can tell them that it can be optional, and challenge them to find examples of both in printed materials or online. (For editors, it depends on the company’s house style. Check the style guide that the company uses to see what’s recommended. At Sprout English, we don’t use spaces.)

Source: The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, sections 6.78–6.81.

For information about the em dash, see my blog post Using the Em Dash Correctly on our sister-site for teens and adult learners, ESL-Library.

     

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Tanya Trusler

Tanya is a freelance editor and writer with an extensive background as an ESL teacher. She edits lesson plans, creates new materials, and writes weekly blog posts for ESL-Library and Sprout English. Her company is Editing to a T. Follow her on Twitter (@tanyatrusler) and Google Plus.

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