Hyphens, Ellipses and Dashes…Oh my! Part 2 – “eN” dashes

By M. Richard Eley

 In my previous article, we explored the wacky life of hyphens. As we found out, a hyphen’s main use is to break or join multiple-word compound terms.

This time, we’ll look at the eN dash. The eN dash, like its brother the eM dash, is named for the letter length of the dash in the same font. An eN dash is supposed to be as long as an upper case N, but this can vary due to font design, character proportional spacing, and Web browsers. In any case, an eN dash will fall somewhere between a hyphen and the longer eM dash (explored in Part 3 of this series.)

An eN dash is a little-used symbol, mainly due to its specific purpose, which is to break up a range of numbers, contest results, or scores. Many folks aren’t even aware of the eN dash, and often use hyphens instead—so you will see variances as to where and how it is used. Even major publishers and publications will show variances in its use.

The eN dash should be used for number ranges, contest results, or scores. It looks like this: pages 14–20, 2010–2012, the Senate voted 68–32, Bears over Raiders 47–28.

Note: If a range is introduced with words like “from,” “between,” or “during” do not use any form of dash: “The years between 1967 and 1970 were exciting.”

It’s a one or the other rule—when dealing with numbers, either use an eN dash OR a range preposition. “The crates between 13–16 are the most valuable,” is incorrect because it uses both an eN dash and “between.”

Sometimes, even though the usage is correct, the sentence’s meaning becomes confusing. Take, for example: “Crates 13–16 are the most valuable.”

Does that mean we are talking about four crates: 13, 14, 15 and 16?

Does it mean only two crates, 14 and 15, which are the two crates between 13 and 16?

Or is 13–16 a lot number—with a dozen crates on a pallet #13–16?

I’ve seen this type of ambiguity show up more often than you’d imagine—even in science books, college textbooks, and technical manuals. If a tech manual says, “To disable unit, cut the wires to the terminals between 44 and 48,” does that include terminals 44 and 48? Do you think a bomb disposal technician might be wondering the same thing? Express the correct meaning in clear and certain phrasing.

Often when discussing a range of physical “things,” the sentence will read smoother and clearer if you forego eN dashes in favor of a preposition: “The book volumes #13 through #16 have the most useful data,” or “The contestants numbered between one and two hundred.”

Using a prepositional word looks better than “There were 180–220 people out there.” It’s easy to misconstrue “180–220” as an adjective modifier of “people” instead of a numeric range.

However, when identifying a pair of numbers, not a range, the eN dash is usually clearer and less verbose. “Last night the Bears beat the Raiders: 47–28” or “The vote for adjournment failed, 55–11.” In those examples, the reader is likely to understand from the context that we are discussing a comparison between two specific numbers, and not a range. An eN dash is the best choice for this use, unless your particular style is to craft the phrase in a more literal manner: “The vote failed: 55 were in favor, and 11 against.”

The important thing is to construct the sentence such that the meaning is unmistakable, no matter who reads it, or if it is used out of context or quoted.

If you follow a particular stylebook—and this is highly suggested—it might have a rule about eN dash verses hyphen use. It appears acceptable in most cases to use either an eN dash or a hyphen for compound adjectives before nouns: note the difference in “hyphen-separated” and “eNdash–separated.”

But hyphens placed words slightly closer together than eN dashes do, and hyphens are considered the standard for compounding words.

In Microsoft Word: hold down the CTRL key then press the Minus key on the numeric keypad to create an eN dash. You must use the numeric keypad’s Minus key, not the Hyphen key near the Backspace key on the top row.

Using HTML/ALT codes, you can also hold down a PC’s ALT key and type 8211 or 0150 on the keypad. (8211 is the HTML code, 0150 is the original ASCII code.)

*Note: all codes must be typed on a regular numeric keypad, so they probably won’t work using a laptop’s embedded keypad.*

On Macs, try OPT-HYPHEN to create an eN dash.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at eM dashes. Until then, write on!

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