Em dashes and En dashes: A breadth of difference

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An em dash (—) can be used for almost anything: instead of a colon (such as the preceding), to replace parentheses (such as the preceding, and current), or just to represent a sudden change of direction in logic*.

An en dash (–) is somewhat more limited in its utility. Limited to two uses, in fact: firstly, as shorthand for “from” and “to”, à la 9am–5pm; and secondly, to hyphenate two words where one is actually part of another word pairing. As in “post–afternoon tea“, or”anti–Tony Abbott“.

On the other hand, ordinary single pairings like “long, dark tea-time” and “anti-troglodyte” (respectively) require nothing wider than a hyphen.

Based on Mental Floss (where knowledge junkies get their fix). ]

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{ via ilovetypography }

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So the next time someone tries to tell you there’s no difference between an em dash and an en dash, might I suggest you draw their attention to the difference between forMication and forNication?


And if they STILL insist that the difference doesn’t matter, why not offer to release a bucket of crawling, gnashing ants in their general direction.


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* But not all at once. Consider the absurdity of the following:

“Em dashes can be used for almost anything — instead of a colon — such as the preceding — to replace parentheses — such as the preceding, and current — or just to represent a sudden change of direction in logic.”

… THAT doesn’t work at all.

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2 thoughts on “Em dashes and En dashes: A breadth of difference”

  1. Thank you for clarifying this! As a foreign speaker, dashes had always been a mystery for me.
    Could you also explain whether ellipses are written with a preceding space, as a single character (…) or as three dots — and why? I’m an ellipsis fan, but though the rules are clear in my native language I could never observe a consistent style in English :/

    1. WELL, it can depend on the style preference of the publication involved (or your university’s preferred style guide, as I always found), but if you’re quoting text from another source and you leave some of the words out, then you use FOUR dots (….) with NO space either side.

      But most of the time, for ordinary everyday ellipses, I stick with the following: no space after the word, three dots, then a space after the ellipses.

      For example: “Ellipses are funny things… but nothing to be afraid of.”

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