Hyphen, En Dash, Em Dash, Minus

Hyphen-1I’m moving along to more lookalike punctuation today, since I’m eager to see what new things I can learn writing on these. On a high level note, let me say that what I’m sharing today is language- and culture-specific and therefore not universally applicable, and subject to change. I should also mention that this is a fuzzy area that tends to test the boundaries and overlaps between typography, language, and grammar.


Hyphen-2You probably know the most common uses of hyphens, the stubby, multipurpose half-dashes. They push apart and tie together suffixes, prefixes, words, and phrases. The often-derided mark, hated for its careless and prevalent misuse, has quite a few proper uses, hyphenation for one. Throughout this piece I’ve attempted to use hyphens in just about every way hyphens are commonly used. Maybe not E-V-E-R-Y S-I-N-G-L-E way, since some are kind of annoying. All the characters described below could potentially, and are frequently represented by hyphens.

When instructed to do so, layout software may insert hyphens, according to a hyphenation dictionary, when a word’s length suggests that it break from one line to the next. Non-breaking hyphens, useful in things like phone numbers or hyphenated proper nouns, ensure that these elements won’t be line-broken by hyphenation algorithms should they too closely approach the edge of the text column. Be particularly wary of hyphenation when it can critically alter the meaning of some unique identifier, such as a URL, e-mail address, etc.. There are other ways of keeping this hyphenation-prone info unbroken, such as by applying a ‘no break’ character style (or on the web, specifying white-space: nowrap; to the element’s style).

Hyphen-3Discretionary hyphens serve as a kind of override to InDesign’s hyphenation system. The easiest way to see how they work is to find a word that’s been hyphenated and insert a discretionary hyphen nearer the beginning of the word. The cursor above (fourth line, near the end) inserts a discretionary hyphen giving the below result. You can do this in InDesign via Type > Insert Special Character > Hyphens and Dashes > Discretionary Hyphen, or keyboard shortcut: Command + Shift + hyphen (Mac), or Ctrl+Shift+hyphen (Windows). These are ‘soft’ hyphens by the way, meaning that unless the word is sufficiently close to the edge, you won’t see any difference in behavior. (With hidden characters visible, you’ll be able to see it.)

Hyphen-4And lastly, you can use two hyphens in place of an em dash—if, say, it’s set in a monospaced font.

En dash

Hyphen-10The en dash is longer and generally not as heavy a stroke as a hyphen and suggests a range between two specified points. We’re open 7–11, Mon–Fri, etc. How you typeset your en dashes, whether flush or with a hair space between its neighbors, is up to you or the applicable style guide you may be required to follow for a given job.

Em dash

Hyphen-9“Let’s just forget about the em dash and leave it to Victorian literature,” or something like that is what I recall being the thrust of Robert Bringhurst’s feelings on the subject. The em dash is the longest of the dashes, used primarily to preserve in time one thought—while momentarily breaking off into a different direction—before returning. Or not. I think Bringhurst’s main quarrel with the mark is that it’s too disruptive, because it’s too long. Some suggest that we just replace it with a suspended en dash – a fine alternative. Another just as good alternative? Provided your em dash is a simple rectangle, you can scale it to whatever length necessary, set up a character style, and apply it to all em dashes in your document.

And a general note to people who use a hyphen with no spaces around it to signify an em dash—you are headed for a misunderstanding. The general layperson workaround is to type two hyphens in succession. I’ve also seen this handwritten far too many times.


Hyphen-8For typesetting math, use the minus sign as an operator, or for specifying negative numbers. Often, typographers will use an en dash if there’s no minus sign in the character set of a given font, or if they’re too lazy to go looking for it, but not lazy enough to use—well, you know.

That’s it. Thanks to Tobias Frere-Jones’s Griffith Gothic for setting today’s examples. Using Type continues Thursday.


  1. Nate
    Posted July 11, 2013 at 8:49 PM | Permalink

    Prime mark should be swapped for a proper apostrophe in the example “7–9 o’clock.”

  2. Posted July 11, 2013 at 10:01 PM | Permalink

    You’re right Nate, though this particular typeface’s apostrophes (right single quotes) are indistinguishable from inclined prime marks. Should have hard-encoded it. Will update in the morning.

  3. Arthur
    Posted July 12, 2013 at 2:00 AM | Permalink

    Which is the right one to use in the case of when inserting a name after a quote. For example:

    “Pull quote taken out of text”
    –Name of person

  4. Posted July 12, 2013 at 8:00 AM | Permalink

    Hi Arthur. The em dash has traditionally filled this role.

  5. jmcoa
    Posted July 12, 2013 at 1:21 PM | Permalink

    “No em dash before the name! Just looks better.”
    W.A. Dwiggins

  6. Posted July 12, 2013 at 1:49 PM | Permalink

    Care to cite a source on that last one?

  7. Posted July 15, 2013 at 10:53 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for this useful piece. I prefer the em dash before the author’s name on an enlarged quote, and it can be useful, but it’s clunky-looking in text.

  8. Posted July 16, 2013 at 9:25 AM | Permalink

    Em dashes are often used standard for quote sources, but there is no solid convention as far as I can tell. It’s all about house style on that one. Don’t feel forced to use a dash if space, size, or type style already make the delineation clear.

  9. Posted July 16, 2013 at 12:25 PM | Permalink

    Solid advice from Mr. Coles.
    I wonder why so few typestyles have designed matching dashes. They seem interchangeable between faces.

  10. Posted July 16, 2013 at 5:01 PM | Permalink

    A text face designer doesn’t want to mess too much with the dashes or they will limit the type’s versatility. It really should just be a horizontal stroke. Where dashes do vary between typefaces is in their length and spacing. Some fonts have very long en and em dashes in proportion to their accompanying letters, while others are relatively short. Some have built-in spacing on either side. Some don’t. That’s why it’s always good to take all typographic rules with a grain of salt and consider the context.

  11. Posted July 17, 2013 at 11:54 AM | Permalink

    Put differently, it sounds to me Joel that what you’re asking is, ‘Why isn’t the en dash from Baskerville the same exact length, weight, position, etc. as the en dash from Minion?’ (since these “seem interchangeable between faces”). Maybe the best answer to this question is because the design of the punctuation is subservient to the design of the letters, figures and symbols, not the other way around. Different faces differ in more than the shape of their letters, and are therefore served by having punctuation specific to their proportions, weight, fit, etc..
    But—it’s an interesting idea & you don’t have to go back too far in time to a point when the dashes on hand were the dashes used no matter the typeface. (CSS follows the same convention when provided no better recourse).

  12. textwrapper
    Posted July 17, 2013 at 12:39 PM | Permalink

    Mr. Coles answered the intended question, but I agree with Mr. Sudweeks that punctuation ought to be subservient to the design/weight of the letters. Dashes in so many fonts looks like they were lifted from another. Should Goudy Oldstyle really have the same dashes as say, Rockwell? Dashes may just be a convention that cannot be practically customized. I appreciate your thoughts.

  13. textwrapper
    Posted July 17, 2013 at 12:41 PM | Permalink

    Sorry, “textwrapper” = Joel Mielke. I’m no type designer, but I’m an enthusiastic user.

  14. Laurence Penney
    Posted July 17, 2013 at 1:32 PM | Permalink

    This is all very well in print, but be careful using MINUS SIGN and primes on the web, or even in a PDF you want to be an accessible electronic resource.

    For example, geographically I am at:

    51.459113°, −2.622153°

    But Google Earth and Google Maps do not understand that MINUS SIGN. Replace it with HYPHEN-MINUS and all is well.

    Similarly, in DMS notation I am at:

    51°27′34″N, 2°37′16″W

    Happily, these days Google understands primes in Earth and Maps. Google used not to, and there will be many geographical services that don’t understand them.

    It makes me think the best long term solution is to have primes and MINUS SIGNs coded as stylistic alternates to the ASCII characters that will always be entered by technicians and will be found in databases forevermore.

  15. Posted January 2, 2014 at 10:20 AM | Permalink

    In modern British typography you will almost never see em-dashes without spaces separating clauses, only in the US (or when someone has read a blog like this!) British layout will almost always use word-space-endash-space-word.

    Another case along the lines of Laurence Penney’s point that caught me recently. I was posting a shortcode to insert into wordpress. The editor snuck in smart quotes behind my back and they don’t work in things like [eg param=”something”], so when someone copied and pasted them they got upset.

  16. Peter O'Carroll
    Posted January 2, 2014 at 5:59 PM | Permalink

    Another use for the en dash: it is used to make compound words when one or more parts of the compound contain more than one word.

    For example: “Many people think Hillary Clinton is White House–bound.” (Part of this compound, “White House,” consists of more than one word. Therefore, it needs an en dash to connect it to the other part, “bound,” so the reader won’t think we’re saying that Hillary is a white person who is house-bound.) “New York–style pizza” needs an en dash to connect two words “New York” to the other part of the compound adjective, “style,” so it won’t be confused with the new York-style pizza just introduced in York, England. A hyphen just isn’t strong enough to connect multiple-word compounds; you need an en dash.

    You’ll find this typographical nicety used in well-edited publications.

  17. Robert Slaven
    Posted January 3, 2014 at 10:04 AM | Permalink

    Late to the party here, but regarding em dashes: It seems like every editor I use—be it Microsoft Word, or any of these little text boxes on websites from here to Facebook—will NOT break a line at an em dash. So, for example, my “Facebook—will” above will often either be squished into the end of a line (with horrible over-kerning, if that’s a term), or put onto the next line with the previous line being s t r e t c h e d out.

    Is that something that’s fixable/changeable in Word or elsewhere? Or should we be yelling at Microsoft et al. to fix this? Or am I just mistaken in thinking that word-em dash-word shouldn’t be broken?

    Personally, I just try to avoid problems by using the method that David Earl mentions above (word-space-endash-space-word). I’m Canadian, even though I’m currently working and living in the US, and I grew up on Penguin and other UK-published books that often did that with their em dashes. And I’m not a professional printer/publisher/designer/writer, I just like to get things right; “there are those who call me … Grammar Nazi.”

  18. Robert Slaven
    Posted January 3, 2014 at 10:06 AM | Permalink

    … and, of course, as I post the above, it shoves “Facebook—will” onto the next line, leaving the line above it feeling awfully short-changed. Perfect illustration.

  19. Posted January 3, 2014 at 10:18 AM | Permalink

    Huh. News to me. According to the spec, a flush-set em dash should have a break opportunity both before and after it. My gut reaction is always to blame Word, so that may not be so reliable.

  20. Robert Slaven
    Posted January 3, 2014 at 10:35 AM | Permalink

    I just tried it on Word 2010 (haven’t had it for long, just got it at work a couple of months ago), and I CAN force it to break on an em dash. It does, however, seem quite reluctant to do so; in all the ways I tried, it’s as if Word was doing its dire best to “hang on” and not split the word-em dash-word chunk. Maybe it was just all those older versions of Word that didn’t do it properly?

  21. soloowl
    Posted March 23, 2014 at 5:48 AM | Permalink

    Consider the two Unicode “characters” U+200B Zero Width Space (ZWSP) and U+2060 Word Joiner (WJ). The former is used to indicate where a line may be broken, but a hyphen is not to be printed. The latter is used to indicate where a line may not be broken.

    For example, if your style requires em-dashes to butt up against the words, enter “ZWSP, em-dash, ZWSP”. On second thought, “WJ, em-dash, ZWSP” would prevent the dash from beginning a line.

    On the other hand, the en-dash that replaces the words “to” or “through” is not surrounded by spaces, and should be entered “WJ, en-dash, WJ” to prevent an unwelcome word break.

    Does this help?

  22. soloowl
    Posted March 23, 2014 at 6:26 AM | Permalink

    There are yet more dashes. The proper thing to use in telephone numbers, social security numbers, and the like is the figure dash. It is a little higher, and should be exactly the width of aligned numerals.

    There is the quotation dash, used (always on a new line) to indicate a new speaker in conversations. This is rare in English, but required in some other languages. It is longer than any other dash.

    Unicode provides us with no less than seven dashes. Six of them are encoded at U+2010 through U+2015: Hyphen, Non-breaking Hyphen, Figure Dash, En Dash, Em Dash, and Quotation Dash. Unicode lists them in order of length. Most fonts have them all at the same height, but a few fonts raise the figure dash a bit, since aligned numerals are so tall.

    The proper symbol for subtraction or negation of numbers (found at U+2212 Minus Sign) is just the horizontal part of the plus sign. When used as a unary operator, it butts up to the number it is negating. When used as binary operater, there is a space (properly 4/18 of an em – thinner than a word space) between it and the subraction operands.

    That thing on your keyboard is “U+002D Hyphen-Minus”. Good software should convert it to a minus sign or a figure dash where appropriate. But most software is buggy in this regard. The Great Punctuation Squeeze caused by typewriters lives on!

    [Not to mention swung dash, circled dash, OCR dashes (which don’t look like dashes at all), 2-em dash (aka omission dash), 3-em dash, and angled dash. Just browsing though BabelMap.]

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