What Even Is an En Dash?
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
The en dash is a symbol that only editors seem to know about, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Short Story
There are hyphens, em dashes, and en dashes. You’ve probably used one or two of those before. But what about the last one?
Believe it or not, the en dash (“–”) has very specific purposes that can easily be mastered. The gist? Use the en dash for the following:
In number ranges as a substitute for “to.”
In open-compound adjectives as a substitute for a hyphen.
NOTE: There are situations in which a publisher or style guide may choose not to use en dashes, so you might notice inconsistencies in usage that are not due to lack of knowledge.
Before taking a copyediting class, I had zero idea that an en dash was even a thing. But now that I know, I take pride in adding my en dashes in the proper places—and you can too!
First, let’s make sure you can see the difference between the dashes.
“-” is a hyphen.
“–” is an en dash. It’s so-called because it’s the length of an “n.”
“—” is an em dash, so-called because it’s the length of an “m.”
It might take a little while, but your eye can become trained to know the difference.
Also, did you know (I only just learned this) that the minus sign is actually its own symbol too? Here’s a comparison, for those curious like I was:
“-” is a hyphen.
“−” is a minus sign.
“–” is an en dash.
Okay, let’s get back down to business. What exactly does the en dash do?
1. Takes the place of “to” in ranges
In a number range:
Ex: I gave him probably 10–12 hugs today.
I would want that many hugs too. Here you can see that the en dash is substituting for the word “to.”
In a date range:
Ex: She said she would come June 4, 2022–June 8, 2022.
Again, it’s not hard to see what function the en dash is performing here.
When not to use the en dash in a range:
Ex: My favorite time of the day is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
This is the only time using the en dash in a range can get tricky. If you have the word “from” before a range, keep the written word “to” for the sake of parallel structure. Using the en dash would be correct only if it said, “My favorite time of the day is 10 a.m.–3 p.m” (without the word “from”).
More examples of “to” as an en dash:
Ex: I’m taking the Dallas–San Diego flight tomorrow.
Ex: “The score was 12–9.”
2. Takes the place of a hyphen in open-compound adjectives.
An open compound is a noun or adjective that is spelled as two words (e.g. ice cream, James Bond, copy editor). If a hyphen would normally be needed, but you have an open compound, replace the hyphen with an en dash.
Ex: I lived in a pre–Harry Potter world.
I’ll give another example for good measure:
Ex: I can’t resist buying rock band–inspired t-shirts.
In these two examples, “Harry Potter” and “rock band” are open-compound adjectives. There you have it. Start using those en dashes, and you’ll feel like a real punctuation wiz. Plus, you’ll save your editor some time—double bonus!
The Published Examples
“The History of Cartography (1987–) is a multivolume work published by Chicago.”
(The Chicago Manual of Style Online, “En Dash with an Unfinished Number Range,” section 6.79.)
This example shows that an en dash can be used even in an open number range. It still takes the place of “to.”
“The two don’t set out to change the world or alter their own lives, nor do they jump far into the past or future for an excellent Bill and Ted–style adventure.”
(Phillips, Maya. “‘See You Yesterday’ and the Perils—and Promise—of Time-Travelling While Black.” The New Yorker, 27 May 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/see-you-yesterday-and-the-perilsand-promiseof-time-travelling-while-black)
This article is full of different types of dashes, including two instances of the en dash. In this particular sentence, we have a great example of an open-compound adjective: “Bill and Ted–style.”
“For a more in-depth discussion of the genealogies of Jesus, see Matt. 1:1–17 and Luke 3:23–38.”
(McMurray, Steven R. Jesus Christ, the Son of God: The Witness of the Gospels, vol. 1, 2018.)
This is another great example of using an en dash in a range, quoted from a book that I helped edit. So yes, I was the one that added in most of the en dashes!