In the battle of the em dash vs. the en dash it is critical that writers are aware of the major differences between the two punctuation marks and that they ensure they use them correctly and in the appropriate format in their written documents. Otherwise, you may find yourself guilty of making funny punctuation mistakes.
The first basic concept to get your head around concerns the length of the punctuation mark. The em dash is the length of a lower case letter “m” and the en dash is the length of the letter “n.” When using the em dash and the en dash you should not leave any spaces between the punctuation and the next word.
Not exactly rocket science is it? However, it’s really their basic usage that you really need to get to grips with when revising your writing.
Uses of the En Dash
One of the biggest uses of an en dash is between periods of time where otherwise you may use the word “to”:
The job is suitable for people who already have some experience in marketing and the ideal candidate will be aged 30–40.
It is sunny all year round in Singapore, but the rain is heaviest November–January.
The en dash is also often used in the place of a hyphen to combine open compounds:
The award-winning lake is situated on the England–Scotland border.
I’m not really sure how old she is. I think she’s of college–university age.
Uses of the Em Dash
Em dashes can be used in the place of a number of punctuation marks including commas, parenthesis, semi-colons and colons and—although many people do use them in formal writing—they are mostly suited to informal documents. Their main use is to convey an abrupt change of topic or thought and they should be used sparingly.
The Octopus—who was really quite ugly—swam under the boat and escaped the net.
It took a large number of people to push the car up the hill—Katy, James, Joe and Brenda, to name a few.
Keyboard Shortcuts for the En Dash and Em Dash:
en-dash (–) : option+hyphen
em-dash (—) : shift+option+hyphen
For more punctuation help, see our comprehensive guide to the 14 punctuation marks everyone needs to master.