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The En Dash

Filed on: May 30, 2008 | Written by Yateendra Joshi | Add new comment

If there is a single mark that sets apart professional technical writing from amateur efforts, it is the en dash. Properly, the en dash belongs to the toolbox of the typesetter and the printer: because the en dash is almost like the hyphen, only a little longer, it is seldom seen in handwritten or typewritten matter. Some authors and typists, however, type two hyphens in a row to indicate the en dash. But what is it used for?

The most common use of the en dash is to indicate a range: when set between two numbers, it simply replaces the preposition 'to', as in 'numbers 10-99' for 'numbers 10 to 99'. If you scan the lists of references cited, you will notice that the dash between page numbers is slightly longer (and thinner) than the hyphen. That dash is the en dash, and its use between page numbers is universal in professional publishing. Similarly, the en dash is used between pairs of place names in names of roads, trains, flights, and journeys, as in 'Mumbai-Bangalore expressway', 'London-Edinburgh Express', 'New York - Washington shuttle', and so on.

Also universal, but not as straightforward, is the en dash that separates two nouns of equal importance that occur together, as in the 'environment-development debate' and 'cost-benefit analysis'. In these pairs, either member can come first without any change in the meaning.

Lastly, there are pairs of en dashes used to indicate asides or parenthetical expressions when the idea is to highlight those expressions. Such pairs occur in the middle of a sentence with - usually in British English - each partner or member of the pair flanked by a space.

Keep the following tips in mind when using the en dash.

# The single en dash that separates two numbers 'rubs shoulders' with the numbers as it were: there is no space either before or after the en dash (10-99 and not 10 - 99).

# The same convention, namely the 'spaceless' en dash, holds good for the en dash that separates two place names or other nouns. However, when either or both the nouns run to more than one word, and therefore contain a space, I believe the en dash should also be spaced out ('the North-South divide' but 'New York - San Francisco flight')

# The en dash is used with a single number (usually a year) to indicate that the second number is as yet uncertain, as in life spans of those who are alive at the time of writing: 'Charles Darwin 1809-1882' and 'Albert Einstein 1879-1955' but 'James Watson 1928-' and 'Stephen Hawking 1942-'.

# The keyboard shortcut for the en dash in Windows is Alt+0150: to type it, press and hold down the Alt key and type 0150 from the numerical keypad, and release the Alt key. For this shortcut to work, the Num Lock should be on. Alternatively, in Open type fonts, use the code 2013: type 2013 from the numerical keypad, press and hold down the Alt key, type x (lowercase x), and release the Alt key. (Again, make sure that the Num Lock is on.)

An earlier blog in the series was about the colon (:).


[This is part of the "Grammar" series of posts, which covers everything and anything related to English language grammar.]


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