En Dash vs. Em Dash: A Book Designer’s Take

I am over-the-moon ecstatic to present my first ever guest post by a good friend of mine and expert book designer Rachel Tobie. She’s my go-to person whenever I have a question related to book design, from front cover to flap copy to headers, footers, and justification. For more information about this design diva, check out her website at www.racheltobie.com. And now, without further ado…


My name is Rachel, and I’m honored to be here today as a guest writer for M.E.’s blog! I’m a book designer who also loves to write and edit. M.E. has already written multiple magnificent posts about hyphens, so she’s invited me here to start a discussion about dashes. Specifically: en dashes and em dashes. As a book designer, one of the first things I do when designing a manuscript is to use the “find/change” feature to check dash usage.

“But wait,” you may be saying to yourself. “Isn’t that the editor’s job? Or maybe even the writer’s?” Yes, and yes. But also a little bit no. Writers use dashes brilliantly—but mistakes happen. Editors correct any dashes that are used incorrectly—but mistakes still happen. And designers ferret out any remaining incorrect dashes while designing the book—but mistakes happen at this point, too. That’s why we have proofreaders (bless their eyes and hearts). A typical manuscript includes a whole lot of dashes, so it often ends up being a team effort to make sure they’re all used correctly. [All the dashes in this paragraph are em dashes.]

And there are a LOT of different ways to use both en dashes and em dashes. This post will only scratch the surface. Please consult a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style (pg. 261–265 if you happen to have the 15th edition) for a mind-numbingly comprehensive explanation of usage. [The dash in this paragraph is an en dash.]

The easiest way to tell the difference between the two when looking at them on a page: en dashes are shorter than em dashes. Back in the day when printing happened on letterpresses and each individual letter was its own piece of lead, the en dash was the width of an “n,” while the em dash was the width of an “m.” Hence the names and the different lengths. End of typographical history lesson.

En Dashes: Taste Great with Numbers

En dashes are most commonly used to connect numbers. In these cases, the en dash has the implied meaning of “up to and including” or “through” (and, very occasionally, “to”).


The first season of Invader Zim, 2001–2002, left viewers clamoring for more.

Join us on Friday, 9:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m., to celebrate the fact that we are adults and can drink before noon if we so desire.

The unicorn reserved December 2011–February 2012 for some much-needed “me” time.

Firefly originally aired on Fox(September 20, 2002–December 20, 2002).

Gryffindor beat Slytherin 157–3.

But: don’t use en dashes with “from” or “between.”

The first season of Invader Zim aired from 2001 to 2002.

Firefly originally aired on Foxbetween September 20, 2002, and December 20, 2002.

Less commonly: “The en dash is used in place of a hyphen in a compound adjective when one of its elements is an open compound or when two or more of its elements are open compounds or hyphenated compounds.” Thank you, Chicago Manual of Style, for making my head explode.

I think examples would be helpful here:

the post–Star Trek: The Original Series years [compound adjective with one open element (Star Trek: The Original Series)]

a quasi-public–quasi-private event [compound adjective with two hyphenated compounds]

For more about when to use hyphens, see M.E.’s earlier post about multiple hyphens in series compounds.

Em Dashes: Your Best Frenemy

Em dashes are elegant and versatile creatures, but they might also be the most overused punctuation in today’s writing scene. Grab a novel and flip open to any page. Chances are very good that you’ll find at least one em dash. This is just a theory of mine, but it seems like writers who are struggling to find their voice use lots of em dashes. Stephenie Meyer uses at least one per page in her Twilight series, and I found several pages with as many as five. But I had to hunt through many pages of The Hunger Games before finding a single one. Like I said, just a theory!

You can use an em dash or pair of em dashes to set off an amplifying or explanatory element. This is probably the most common use of the em dash. If you find yourself over-using it for this purpose, consider whether commas, parentheses or a colon would work instead.

It was the release of the most highly anticipated movie of the year—Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2. [Amplifying element]

The influence of three writers—John Grisham, Nora Roberts, and Marcel Proust—is obvious in Luis’ debut novel. [Explanatory element]

The editor—she had been awake correcting en dashes and em dashes all night—curled up under her desk for a quick nap. [Explanatory element]

You might use an em dash to separate a subject from a pronoun that introduces the main clause. This can give your writing a melodramatic tone, so use sparingly (unless you are writing a melodrama).

True love—that was what Westley sought.

Sunshine, rustling leaves, singing birds—nothing lightened her bleak mood.

You can also use an em dash or a pair of em dashes to indicate a sudden break in thought or an interruption in dialogue. These are tricks that every writer should master; they give you great options for your dialogue.

“Will you—can you—ever forgive me?” asked Cecil. [Break in thought]

“I’m not really sure,” Prince Charming began tentatively. “I thought I might—”

“Might what?” Cinderella demanded. [Interruption in dialogue from another character]

“Someday your mistakes are going to come back to bite you in the ass, and”—his voice turned hard—“I won’t rescue you.” [Interruption in dialogue by same character, to indicate a change in tone]

How to Type En Dashes and Em Dashes in Your Manuscript

Programs like Word will automatically insert en dashes and em dashes as you type. To get an en dash in Word: type something; hit the space bar; type a hyphen; another space; and type something else. An en dash will magically appear, though it will have pesky spaces on either side of it that should be deleted. Em dashes are easier. If you type two hyphens, Word will automatically turn that into an em dash.

Don’t let dash usage slow down your creative flow as you write. You can always go back through and add the appropriate dashes later, during the editing process. Like any punctuation, dashes are tools to help you communicate more clearly. Dashes can add subtle nuances and interesting sentence structures to your writing.

The most important thing is to be consistent with whatever characters you use to indicate your en dashes and em dashes, and to tell your editor exactly which characters you used for each type of dash. If you choose to insert a heart for every en dash and a smiley face for every em dash, so be it! Just be consistent (and make sure you’re not using those symbols anywhere else in your manuscript) and tell your editor what they mean. That will make it easier for your editor and, in turn, your designer to understand your intentions. In the end, they will be better able to turn your manuscript into a book that says exactly what you intended to say. And isn’t that what every writer wants? ♥ 🙂

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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7 Responses to En Dash vs. Em Dash: A Book Designer’s Take

  1. Pingback: Helpful Writing Sites and Blog Post August/September 2011 | The Graceful Doe's Blog

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