What’s with the long dash and short dash? And what do you do with them?!
The em dash
These are our personal fav. They are called “em dashes” because they are the width of the letter “m”. They look like this—and you can use them to replace just about any other piece of punctuation.
We like them because they’re a good way to break up text, set content apart, and emphasize what you’re saying. They’re excellent friends of readability and persuasiveness.
Here are examples of the many uses of an em dash:
In lists—This is a way to avoid two layers of bullets. Rather than having a category bullet and a detail bullet, you can combine the two with an em dash.
For emphasis—Use them to replace two commas in a sentence—like this—so the text stands out. Or use an em dash to replace a period because it packs more punch in your next point—see what we mean?
For readability—Because the em dash is longer, it actually creates more breathing room and is consequently easier to read. That’s the same reason we no longer need to use two spaces after a period (that was in the type-writing days when we needed extra room to separate sentences). Now, the software in Word automatically adds that extra space.
For titles and categories—You can also use them to replace things like colons too, as we did in our blog title. Blog—Our Round Table.
Want to know a trick?
To get Microsoft Word to magically create em dashes, you type:
a word → two hyphens → another word → space = and voilà! You get an em dash.
A final note—Don’t put spaces around them (except in AP style academic writing or in the UK).
If you're really curious, here's an article with lots more examples.
The en dash
They are called en dashes because–you guessed it–they’re the length of an “n”. These little fellows often get misused to replace to em dash, with spaces around them. Really, they’re meant to replace the word “to”. You use them in ranges of numbers, like:
- from 1980–1990
- see pages 4–10
- office hours are 1:00–3:00
The Microsoft Word shortcut to create an en dash
Like an em dash, there's a trick. Type:
a word → two hyphens → a space → another word = en dash!
Again, no spaces is our preference. If you'd like to learn some even more precise ways to use the en dash, go here.
This is the littlest fellow of all, and it’s what you put between words. Examples are long‑term planning or two‑year contract. These are called compound adjectives because they work together to modify a noun. You can’t say “long” planning or “term” planning—it’s “long‑term” planning. Go here for some extra examples, if you’re curious.