The Elusive 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 dyed-in-the-wool snob.

But try to punctuate the compound adjectives in these phrases: a New York based artist, a Charles Dickens inspired author, a post World War II novel. Most writers would take pains to avoid “New-York-based artist,” “Charles-Dickens-inspired author,” and “post-World-War-II novel.” Hyphenating open compounds like New York, Charles Dickens, and World War II feels wrong and looks weird.

Most of us would write New York-based artist, Charles Dickens-inspired author, and post-World War II novel. We would respect the integrity of the compound proper noun, recognizing that a hyphen intrusion would not assist readers, and might confuse and distract them.

Some time ago, publishers decided that a hyphen was too puny to join open compounds to other words in a compound adjective. So they replaced the hyphen with the en dash, which is longer than a hyphen but shorter than a long dash. Here are en dashes in action: New York–based artist, Charles Dickens–inspired author, post–World War II novel.

Most books and many magazines would pick the en dash over the hyphen in those three examples. The en dash is used for other purposes too. But you won’t find this mark in most daily newspapers—there is no mention of the en dash anywhere in the Associated Press’s influential stylebook for journalists. In fact, the most respected reference books and style guides of the twentieth century give short shrift to the en dash. H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage does not acknowledge its existence. Neither does Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer. Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage gives the en dash two sentences, and discourages its use.

Before the age of computers, only professional printers could make en dashes; everyone else muddled through with hyphens. Many people have never heard of en dashes, despite having seen them a thousand times. The irony is that although the en dash mostly goes unnoticed, its function is cosmetic. It resolves no ambiguities. It clears up no confusion. It does nothing that a hyphen can’t do and hasn’t done, except to look a bit more symmetrical in certain constructions. It is an elegant flourish that most readers haven’t been trained to recognize, let alone benefit from.

[If the en dash seems right for you, here are a couple of methods for typing one (there are others as well). On a PC, hold down the ALT key and type 0150 on the numeric keypad located on the far right of the keyboard. On a Mac, hold down the Option key and type the minus sign located at the top of the keyboard.]

Pop Quiz

Supply the necessary punctuation. Answers are below.

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)

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14 Comments on The Elusive En Dash

14 responses to “The Elusive En Dash”

  1. Abigail Volcy says:

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

    • 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.

  2. 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

  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.

    • 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. 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.

    • 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.

  5. Sarah W. says:

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

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