I'm reasonably certain the em dash is more common than the en dash in American English. But which of the two is more common in British English?

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    @TaliesinMerlin In student writing, I suspect the en dash is more common everywhere since MS Word, in which the majority of writing is done these days, auto-corrects a spaced (or double) hyphen to an en dash. Em dashes require more typographic savviness. In actual typeset contexts, though, the em dash is definitely more common in AmE than in BrE. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 2 '19 at 16:56
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    @BloodyCurious I would say the en dash is more common there, but I’m less categorically certain of that. A quick glance through some UK-printed novels in my bookcase shows en dashes in all of them. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 2 '19 at 17:01
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Bringhurst talks about this; spaced en dash is normal in the Commonwealth. – tchrist May 2 '19 at 17:12
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    The great advantage of using en-dashes as separators for clauses is that you never have to use an em-dash again – so you don't need to clutter your mind with rules about when you should use which. – Peter Shor May 2 '19 at 17:30
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    @BloodyCurious: in the 19th century, there was only one type of dash in English—the em dash. Then printers started using en-dashes for ranges, like 10–12, because they thought it looked better. So having two different types of dashes is actually the modern absurdity (for a slightly different definition of modern). ;-) – Peter Shor May 2 '19 at 21:27

This is a matter of style, so it's not possible to give a definitive answer on what the correct use is. Different style guides, and different people, will use dashes in different ways.

Having said that, it's generally been the case that more British style guides will say to not use an em dash but, where US style would use an em dash, to use an en dash that's surrounded by spaces.

From the University of Oxford Style Guide (PDF), page 13:

m-dash (—)
Do not use; use an n-dash instead.

n-dash (–)
Use in a pair in place of round brackets or commas, surrounded by spaces.
      ✔ It was – as far as I could tell – the only example of its kind.
      ✔ The library – which was built in the seventeenth century – needs to be repaired.

Use singly and surrounded by spaces to link two parts of a sentence, in place of a colon.
      ✔ The bus was late today – we nearly missed the lecture.

Use to link concepts or ranges of numbers, with no spaces either side.
      ✔ German–Polish non-aggression pact
      ✔ The salary for the post is £25,000–£30,000.
      ✔ Radio 1 is aimed at the 18–25 age bracket.

Use between names of joint authors/creators/performers etc to distinguish from hyphenated names of a single person.
      ✔ Lennon–McCartney compositions
      ✔ Superman–Batman crossover comics

Note that the guidance here to not use the em dash goes against the guidance of most US-based style guides. (But also note that the use of the en dash recommended in the last two categories—without a surrounding space—does match the use of the en dash recommended by most US style guides.)

But that is only one of the common style guides used in the UK—and many companies and people in the UK do use em dashes. So, it should not be thought of as definitive. As with other aspects of style, pick the style guide that is being used by your audience. If there isn't one, then pick the one you like—or make up your own style sheet from a combination of style guides. Just be consistent.

  • That is interesting. – MikeJRamsey56 May 3 '19 at 18:49
  • Good answer. I edit a lot of manuscripts (in English) from authors outside North America, and I have noticed a strong preference for " – " [en dash with letter spaces on either side] over "—" [closed-up em dash] among British English writers, in particular. The U.S. English preference (reinforced by Chicago and AP) is for the closed-up em dash. – Sven Yargs May 3 '19 at 18:57

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