Writing Tips

Our best writing tip? Edit for clarity and brevity with WordRake. It’s an automated in-line editor that checks for needless words, cumbersome phrases, clichés, and more.

Download a 7-Day Free Trial

Emenem (Part II of III—The En Dash)

The Rules for Using an En Dash

As you know, all grammarians are sadists. You can spot them in elementary school, boiling live frogs. When they reach maturity and start looking for a career, they naturally gravitate toward grammar. No longer satisfied with tying M-80s to the tails of stray cats, they grow up to inflict pain on the rest of us by creating dogma and waiting in the bushes for the rest of us to come along and step in it.


Look! Here’s a pile of dogma right here, the dashes: , , and -. Simple, simple, simple little marks, so innocuous, so seemingly innocent; only a sadist would create them, make them look so similar, then call them by different names and use them for different purposes


If you go back over a century ago to early Fowler, and drop in on the musings of various grammarians every few decades since, right up to Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which I highly recommend, you will see the evolution of thought on “dashes” (I include the “hyphen” here). The en dash has muscled its way onto the page between the other two only recently, as grammarians began to follow the lead of typesetters and publishers.


As we saw last week, we use the em dash, the longest one, to push words apart; as we shall see next week, we use the hyphen, the shortest one, to bring them together. But we needed another dash, the en dash, the one in the middle, to indicate continuing numbers and dates open ended, and to separate “compound” words containing “open” elements or elements already hyphenated. There’s the pile!



The en dash is so named because it is the width of a lower case n, which is half the width of an upper case M—or an em dash. We should not confuse the en dash with the em dash—each has its own function—neither should we confuse it with the hyphen, which is half as wide as an en dash. We will explore hyphens next week.

Get an in-house editor at your fingertips for 35 cents a day.

WordRake editing software is a second pair of eyes to help polish your writing.

Polish your writing. It’s easy.


We use the en dash for three things:


First, to separate inclusive numbers and words representing dates, time periods, or references: 1962–1975; 2:00–5:00 p.m.; April–June; Chicago Manual of Style, 6.32–6.42.


Here’s another little pile they’re waiting for us to step in: the en dash does not mean “to” or “and”; it may not follow a preposition: to write “from 2008–2012” is incorrect, and so is “between Tuesday–Friday.” The correct way is: “from 2008 to 2012” and “between Tuesday and Friday.” But we may write, “The store is open Tuesday–Friday,” because no preposition precedes it.


Second, use the en dash when the end date has not yet been determined: “Pat Benatar (1953–).”


Grammar Guru of The Washington Post, Bill Walsh, calls hog-wash on the en dash; absolutely no need for it; just use the hyphen, a perfectly good separation. I agree, sort of; but there’s this . . .


. . . third situation, which admittedly will not come up often, where one element in a “compound” adjective or “compound” noun is “open” or already hyphenated.


A “compound” is two or more words that act together as a unit. “New York” is an “open” compound. When we combine it with another word to describe “line,” we separate "New York" and the next word with an en dash: “The New York–Boston line.” Where one or both compounds are already hyphenated, we also need to separate them with an en dash: “the pre-formed–pre-manufactured home”


I suspect the en dash will continue to muscle its way onto the page, and it does distinguish in a way the hyphen cannot, so we should try to use it correctly.



Type a word, hit space, tap “-” twice, hit space again, and type the following word. Microsoft Word will automatically turn that double hyphen into a dash the width of a small case n, or an en dash. Then remove the spaces on either side.


Alternatives: on a PC, go to Insert -> Symbol -> More Symbols -> Special Characters; highlight “En Dash” and click “Insert.” On a Mac, hold down “option” and tap “-.”


I have said many times that when you get the finer points of grammar correct, you send the impression to your readers (many of whom know the difference) that you are competent and informed about many other things. But don’t wipe your shoes just yet; the pile gets much deeper next week.

Get an in-house editor at your fingertips for 35 cents a day.

WordRake editing software is a second pair of eyes to help polish your writing.

Polish your writing. It’s easy.

Writing Tips in Your Inbox

About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.

WordRake takes you beyond the merely grammatical to the truly great—the quality editor you’ve always wanted. See for yourself.

Download a 7-Day Free Trial

How Does it Work?

WordRake is editing software designed by writing expert and New York Times bestselling author Gary Kinder. Like an editor or helpful colleague, WordRake ripples through your document checking for needless words and cumbersome phrases. Its complex algorithms find and improve weak lead-ins, confusing language, and high-level grammar and usage slips.

WordRake runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggestions appear in the familiar track-changes style. If you’ve used track changes, you already know how to use WordRake. There’s nothing to learn and nothing to interpret. Editing for clarity and brevity has never been easier.