Post from the past: Using the awesome 'em' dash

This is a re-post of another post from the past.

This rather long post was originally posted on the 26th August, 2009 and talks about the use of one of my favourite punctuation indicators—the ‘em’ dash (see, I just used one there).


I am not a strict grammar and syntax person but there are some regular syntactical errors that writers make over and over that do bother me. One of these involves the use, or, more accurately the non-use or incorrect use of the 'em dash'. So many writers use a hyphen or standard dash (en dash) where an em dash was supposed to be used.

The three most common types of dashes used are:

  • The hyphen (-) [Alt+45].

  • The en dash (–) [Alt+0150, or Ctrl+Num- in Microsoft Office].

  • The em dash (—) [Alt+0151, or Ctrl+Alt+Num- in Microsoft Office].

The basic Hyphen: The hyphen (-) is the shortest of these three dashes. It is technically exactly half the length of the ‘en’ dash in the font being used.

A hyphen is typically used to join words to make a single logical word or to separate syllables of a word, generally for the purposes of word wrapping.

There is no padding space used before or after a hyphen.

On a standard PC keyboard the hyphen is the un-shifted character between the zero (0) and the equals sign (=). On a Windows computer it can also be generated by holding down the Alt key and entering the number 45 on the numeric keypad (written as Alt+45).

Examples of the first use: two-thirds, sub-section, pre-cursor, out-of-body, cul-de-sac, no-holds-barred, corporate-wide, face-to-face, and bail-out.

Second use: With modern day word processing, and with fully justified text (justified left and right margins) falling out of favour, words are rarely hyphenated for wrapping with the exception of newspapers and novels; however examples would be: forbid-ding, Chey-enne, per-haps, feath-ers, and appre-ciate. [Examples taken from John Jakes' novel "Heaven and Hell"]

The Economist Style Guide gives a useful run-down on the correct use of the hyphen.

En dash: The en dash (–) is slightly longer than a hyphen. In a properly constructed font the en dash should be the exact length of the letter ‘n’. Hence the name ‘en’ dash.

The en dash is generally used to indicate a range or to convey the meaning of 'through to'.

Unlike the hyphen and the em dash, an en dash should always be preceded and followed by padding spaces.

For users of Microsoft Office tools (e.g. Word, Excel, etc.,) an en dash can be entered by holding down the Ctrl and Alt keys together and then pressing the numeric keypad hyphen key (above the plus key). On a Windows computer it can also be entered by holding down the Alt key and entering 0150 on the numeric keypad (Alt+0150).

Examples: 100 – 500, 1980 – 2009, and Perth – Bunbury.

Em dash: The em dash (—) is the longest of the three. It should be twice the length of the en dash, which should also be the length of the letter ‘m’ in the font—hence the name ‘em’ dash.

The em dash is probably the most used by writers on the Web, or it would be if they knew this was the dash they intended to use.

Em dashes have three functions. Firstly, an em dash pair can be used to inject a complementary or explanatory thought into a sentence. Secondly, a trailing em dash at the end of a sentence indicates an unfinished statement or thought. Finally, an unpaired em dash can be used to add some final thought or clarifying comment at the end of a sentence.

Almost all style guides indicate that em dashes should be used without padding spaces and this is how I have always used them; however, when I went looking for examples I found that some publishers do use padding spaces around em dashes. I would note however that the local West Australian Newspaper here in Perth uses them correctly, as does the national paper The Australian.

Examples of the first use: (1) 'This fundamental process issue—how to get bureaucracy out of the way—is one that our Human Resources staff are driving.' (2) '… to work closely with people—now partners instead of employees—doing the work'.

Examples of the second use: (1) 'What kind of physician are you—'; (2) 'Look at you! You have let yourself go until you are as soft and as short of wind as an old priest—'. (3) 'It was his Holiness, the abbot of the temple of Osiris—'. [Examples taken from Wilbur Smith's novel "The River God"]

An example of the third use: 'The pieces came together as the result of a strong relationship between the two companies—and between modern technology and manufacturing processes'.

At the copy-editing course I did we were told that the word ‘and’ should never precede an em dash. If you found yourself putting an ‘and’ at the start of a paired em dash then you should probably be using a comma and not an em dash.

[Examples for first and third use are from the book "Business @ the Speed of Thought" by Bill Gates]

Special note on using MS Word: If you use Microsoft Word you can also have an em dash automatically entered by using two hyphens (- -) then as soon as you enter a space (which will happen after the word following the two hyphens), MS Word will automatically replace the two hyphens with an em dash—because it knows an em dash is required there.

Okay . . . this post has gone well over the 500 words (it is 748 up to here) but it was a hard one to trim down.


As I said, I like to use the em dash and find it useful. But some writers don’t believe in the em dash and will not use it.