Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Proofreading Tips: Dashes

Catriona Tippin

An occasional look at punctuation with Proofreading Tips:

Nearly there? Make a dash for it!

Punctuation started as an aid to reading aloud. Originally scribes introduced various marks into text to indicate opportunities to breath or pause or change cadence. With the introduction of printing these marks became formalised and include all the familiar punctuation marks we use today.

We have three ‘dash’ symbols in English punctuation, which have various roles in joining or separating words and phrases:

- The hyphen – is not, strictly speaking, a dash and it’s in the top row on most keyboard layouts. The hyphen is used in compound words (see and word breaks at the end of a line.

The en dash (or N dash) – this is the one some word processing programs substitute for the hyphen when you type: word space hyphen space word etc
or you can insert one with ctrl and the minus key in the numerical keypad (that one on the far right)

The em dash (or M dash) – most word processing programs change two hyphens typed in succession to an em dash: word hyphen hyphen word
or you can insert one with ctrl and altand the minus key in the numerical keypad

En dashes and Em dashes

The en and em dashes were the width of the letters n and m in letterpress typesetting. Traditionally they are ‘set closed’ (set with no spaces on either side) and have specific uses:

The en dash is used for ranges, for instance: 1914–18, pages 1–10, ages 3–5,January–July, Paris–Dakar

A pair of em dashes is used to set apart or highlight a component in a sentence, for instance, here are three sentences each with a different emphasis in the middle, provided by the punctuation:

We’re going on a hunt, for a bear, through long, swishy grass.

We’re going on a hunt (for a bear) through long, swishy grass.

We’re going on a hunt—for a bear—through long, swishy grass.

In each there’s an aside about what the hunt is for (a bear). With the commas there’s a neutral ’rhythm’ to the sentence. The parentheses (curved brackets) ‘de-emphasise’ what they contain – the main things in the middle sentence are the hunt and the grass. With the em dashes there’s an emphasis on the bear, and an attention-seeking interruption in the middle of the sentence.

A single em dash is used to set apart or emphasise a separate thought in a sentence:

They’re going to go on a hunt—for a bear?”

In the past, letterpress typesetters expertly used the right dash – and then typewriters were invented. They had letters of equal width (see the courier font description in so no difference between n and m. The QWERTY layout prevented commonly used typebars from clashing, and as few typebars as possible were used. Uppercase O was used for zero, lowercase L was used for number one and an exclamation mark was created with an apostrophe and a full stop. There was a hyphen, and it was used with spaces on either side to represent an en dash, and twice to represent an em dash. Typesetting, publishing and printing continued to use specific en and em dashes.

Word processing has changed this. Proportional fonts have changed the traditional widths of the letters n and m, but we still have the appropriate dashes at our disposal. Their usage has evolved; though some publishers continue to use the em dash—like this—without spaces, some publishers use a spaced em dash — like so — and more often there’s a spaced en dash – this is it – which is the one you’re probably used to seeing automatically inserted.

The spaced en dash is often used as an em dash these days:

We’re going on a hunt – for a bear – through long, swishy grass.

I think this has become an established convention as it is arguably more comfortable to read on a screen, particularly a phone or a tablet where the small screen makes the size of the dash less obvious. Semi-colons and colons are increasingly being replaced by em dashes or spaced en dashes. You can make a case for these punctuation marks and their subtleties – but we use dashes more often now, and that’s OK as long as meaning and legibility accompany them.

To sum up – use hyphens in compound words and word-breaks, and use en dashes for ranges. And for those dashes within sentences? If you’re submitting to a publisher, you could have a look at whether they use em dashes or spaced en dashes in their current list. And for self-publishing – choose one style and be consistent.

More on punctuation in future Proofreading Tips.

Catriona Tippin aka @ProofReadingTip will be back next month with more proofreading tips. 

To see previous tips, click on this proofreading link.

Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006 and helps organise venues for SCBWI North East. Details of her writing and illustrating here. She proofreads study guides, house magazines and publicity material for two national educational charities, in addition to working on a variety of proofreads and copyedits for the growing self-published world. Her monthly column is intended to give you food for thought, remembering “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling or typographical error” (McKean’s Law, named after its inventor Erin McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary). 


  1. Thanks, Catriona! I have become dangerously addicted to the use of a single spaced en dash to emphasise the end of a sentence (instead of a semi-colon). Glad to hear I'm doing it correctly!

    1. Hi Nick. I've noticed a decrease in the use of semi-colons these days – we all use dashes. The only problem is they are easy to over-use – and look a bit Emily Dickinson – but not in a good way...

  2. Well done Catriona for making your way through that mine-field! I have made so many changes, so many times to the same sentence in the past. This will really help as a reference for the future. Thanks for a great article

    1. Thanks, Dennis, it's part of my occasional stocktake of punctuation marks. Maybe ellipsis next...

  3. These are really wonderful tips about proofreading and really help people with average skill to get success at some level in professional proofreading but still they need to work on their skill development.


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