Grammar En Dash: What Is an En Dash? |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

En Dash: What Is an En Dash?

When a compound adjective precedes a noun it is describing, we often need a hyphen: prize-winning recipe, twentieth-century literature. If a compound adjective comprises more than two words, we use as many hyphens as are needed: a three-day-old newspaper, a long-in-the-tooth baseball manager.

Try however to punctuate the compound adjectives including proper nouns in these phrases: a New York based artist, a Charles Dickens inspired author, a post World War II novel. Most writers would tend to avoid “New-York-based artist,” “Charles-Dickens-inspired author,” and “post-World-War-II novel.”

Hyphenating open compounds such as New York, Charles Dickens, and World War II looks and feels cumbersome. To maintain the integrity of the proper noun in a compound adjective, most of us would write New York-based artist, Charles Dickens-inspired author, and post-World War II novel.

En Dash: Origin and Application

Some time ago, publishers decided that a hyphen was insufficient in joining open compounds to other words in a compound adjective. They replaced the hyphen with the en dash, which is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em (long) dash.

New York–based artist
Charles Dickens–inspired author
post–World War II novel

Most books and many magazines would apply the en dash rather than the hyphen in those examples.

Another common use for the en dash is connecting inclusive or continuous numbers, dates, and times in a range.

pages 224–345
9:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m.

You won’t see the en dash in most daily newspapers, which tend to use the hyphen for punctuating open compounds. Many modern reference books and style guides give short shrift to the en dash as well. Neither H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage nor Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer acknowledges the mark. Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage gives the en dash only two sentences and discourages its use.

Before the age of computers, only professional printers could make en dashes; everyone else had to make do with hyphens. To this day, many people may still be unfamiliar with the mark despite having seen it often in their reading. In truth, the function of the en dash is mainly cosmetic. It resolves no ambiguities and clears no confusion. It does nothing that a hyphen cannot other than look more symmetrical in certain contexts and constructions.

En Dash: How to Make One

If you are a writer who favors the look and precision of the en dash where it can function, you have a few ways you can enter it into your document on a PC. The first is to click on the Insert tab on your word-processing menu and then click on Symbol. You will find a menu of different symbols and special characters for multiple fonts. Simply locate the en dash within the font you are using.

A second method is to hold down CTRL + num lock + hyphen (-) at the same time. Still another way is to press ALT and type 0150 simultaneously.

If you use a Mac, hold down the Option key and type the minus sign located at the top of the keyboard.

Pop Quiz

Drawing from what we’ve discussed about hyphens and the en dash, supply the correct punctuation in the following sentences.

1. Toby is a four year old terrier.
2. The apartment featured a bowling alley length hallway.
3. It was a Star Wars inspired fantasy.
4. The dessert had an ice cream like texture.
5. My terrier is four years old.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Toby is a four-year-old terrier. (two hyphens)

2. The apartment featured a bowling alley-length hallway.
(OR bowling alley–length OR bowling-alley-length)

3. It was a Star Wars-inspired fantasy.
(OR Star Wars–inspired)

4. The dessert had an ice cream-like texture.
(OR ice cream–like OR ice-cream-like)

5. My terrier is four years old. (CORRECT)

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

16 responses to “En Dash: What Is an En Dash?”

  1. Sarah W. says:

    An en dash is mainly used to indicate range.
    pp. 123–135
    during the decade 1960–1969
    chapters 4–6

    • says:

      Yes, that is one of its other uses as mentioned in the fifth paragraph of the article. (We’re not sure we would say “mainly,” though.)

  2. Eric S. says:

    Read your article on the en dash in yesterday’s e-newsletter.
    You stated at the end:

    “If the en dash seems right for you, here is how to type one. On a PC, hold down the ALT key and type 0150 on the numeric keypad located on the far right of the keyboard.”

    There is an easier way to do that.
    Type the first word add a space, type the dash add another space, type the next word.

    Charles – Dickens.

    The PC will automatically make it an en dash.

    • says:

      We are aware of the method you mention, but there are some drawbacks. First, it works in word processing programs such as Microsoft Word, but it does not work in any email programs we are aware of. Second, even though Word will make the hyphen into an en dash, it also requires the space on either side, which to us not only looks odd but is also incorrect.

  3. India G. says:

    Your latest e-mail said an en dash could be used Alt and type some numbers. No need. Just hold Alt and – (minus sign) in Windows.

    • says:

      The method you mention is the same one we recommend in the article to use for Apple computers (Macs). This method does not work for other PCs; at least not for ours.

      • KMcKenzie says:

        On my PC, if you hold down CTRL and type the minus sign in the number pad, you get the en dash.

        If you hold down CRTL + ALT and type the minus sign, you get the em dash.

        Does anyone know if the use of an en dash is still recommended between two proper nouns, such as U.S.-Mexico trade agreement? Was it ever?

  4. Magenta Moon says:

    What about hyphenating prefixes to already hyphenated compound words or phrases? For example, what rules do the experts give to show how hyphenation should occur for the following:

    Post so-called apocalypse
    Pre Anglo-Saxon period
    Anti money-laundering laws
    Non English-speaking students

    • says:

      The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using a hyphen between a prefix and a hyphenated compound term. Therefore, write:
      post-so-called apocalypse
      pre-Anglo-Saxon period
      anti-money-laundering laws
      non-English-speaking students

      • Ben Schultz says:

        I’ve also seen an en dash used in such a case to outrank the hyphen; for example: “non–English-speaking students”.

        • says:

          We don’t recommend using an en dash to replace a hyphen, however, some use an en dash where others use a hyphen.

  5. Abigail Volcy says:

    Is this sentence punctuated correctly?
    Heublien, a Hartford, Connecticut based-company, is moving to another state.

    • says:

      Your sentence could be written correctly using either a hyphen or an en dash (note the correct spelling of Heublein):
      Heublein, a Hartford, Connecticut-based company, is moving to another state. OR
      Heublein, a Hartford, Connecticut–based company, is moving to another state.

      Some might consider this phrasal adjective to be a bit awkward. You could also recast the sentence as:
      Heublein, formerly based in Hartford, Connecticut, is moving to another state.

  6. SF says:

    Re hyphens, ens, and compound words: How about something that is waterproof in a cat’s water dish, meaning it is proofed from cat water? I’ve been staring at “cat-waterproof” for a while and don’t think it suggests clearly that the water is cat-water. (This is obvs not important and will not come up again ever specifically for cat water. Seawater-proof makes sense, but seawater is a compound word already.)

    • says:

      The context you describe would apply the open compound cat water–proof (cat water, en dash, proof).

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