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How I use en dashes and em dashes

En dashes:

  • Sybrand Engelbrecht (1814–2177): Unspaced en dash.
  • January–December: Unspaced en dash.
  • Sybrand loved three things – soccer, jazz, and living forever (he unfortunately couldn't.): Spaced en dash instead of an em dash.

Em dashes:
I don't use em dashes; I use spaced en dashes.

Is it wrong to space en dashes and em dashes?

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3 Answers 3

When I was learning typography--many years ago--the convention was that you did NOT use spaces around en- or em-dashes. If the type designer wants extra space for readability or aesthetics, they will build it into the slug for the type (or in more modern cases, program it into the font).

Because of the proliferation of letter-spaced fonts online, where there is no allowance for a typographer to make a character with a little extra space for aesthetics, the logic for the standard doesn't exactly apply anymore.

But that's still how I do it. And as you can see, when dealing with the internet I tend to use double hyphens instead of em-dashes because you never know how a text editor is going to handle an em-dash, and those that handle them at all will often convert a double hyphen into an em-dash.

And as far as I know, substituting a spaced en-dash where you should use an unspaced em-dash is definitely out.

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There is no “definitely out” about it—spacing and dash choices are almost entirely up to the style you are following (with some exceptions). Sententially, closed em dashes (or, seemingly tacitly, em dashes set off with thin spaces or hair spaces) are recommended by CMS and APA, while Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style and Oxford recommend spaced en dashes. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 25 '13 at 21:21

That seems the convention. The difference between between em and en dashes doesn't matter a great deal; the spacing does, because it makes it much clearer (especially to distinguish dashes - interjecting little notes like this - to a hyphen phrase, for example Anglo-Saxon).

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Old topic on this forum, but one that recently came up for me and I'm a newbie here so I'll add my two cents...

It is technically wrong, but...

I think MS Word contributes to this practice. You cannot get it to automatically make an em-dash from a single hyphen. However, if you are typing along and then type space-dash-space followed by a word - like this - then it will convert the hyphens into an en-dashes. It does not remove the space around them when it does this. For that reason, I've gotten into the habit of doing it that way when I'm not writing something formal. But the correct practice in Word would be to use '--' and '---' with no surrounding spaces. (Assuming auto-dash is turned on, of course.)

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1  
This aspect of MS Word is very annoying, I wish keyboards had the choice of typing hyphens or en-dashes and MSWord would mind its own business and not try to second-guess what I mean. If you cut and paste a lot, hyphens are often left hanging when they should be dashes. And there is no easy way to type an em-dash. –  Mynamite Aug 25 '13 at 21:07
    
As a self-described newbie you may not be aware that this is a Q&A forum. Answers should answer the question; a better place for discussion is English Language & Usage Chat. –  MετάEd Aug 25 '13 at 21:18
    
I made my answer to the question more explicit (it was already in there but sort-of-buried). This is much more structured than chat and I feel like a more appropriate place for the comment, but might be just a HO. –  sfjac Aug 25 '13 at 21:40
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@Mynamite (at the risk of steering this away from an on-topic discussion), holding down Ctrl while pressing the - key on the numeric keypad should give an en dash in MS Office applications (in Windows, at least). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 25 '13 at 22:04
    
@JanusBahsJacquet On a Mac it’s just Option (aka Alt) and - for an en dash, and Shift-Option and - for an em dash — no matter where you are. –  tchrist Aug 26 '13 at 0:18

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