Monday, January 18, 2010

Typography Tip #2: Properly Using Dashes

There are three types of dashes used in type. Yep, three. Most people, unless you are a writer or work in a publishing industry, are unaware of anything beyond the standard hyphen and unfortunately I frequently see hyphens placed where they shouldn't be. It's a big enough problem that our agency proofreader has a Word document he sends to people when he gets enough of their writing that doesn't use dashes properly. Since he spelled things out to nicely, I'm plagerizing a bit of it in this post. Here's the rundown on the different kind of dashes and how to use them:
There are three categories of dashes: hyphens (-), en dashes (–) and em dashes (—). What's with the weird names? Well, en and em refer to the letters 'n' and 'm' respectively. In a given font, much of the distinction of width is based on the width of the 'm' since it is the widest letter in the alphabet. Therefore an em dash is the same width as the letter 'm' for a specific font. The same goes for an en dash, which is usually about half the width of an em dash (since the letter 'n' is generally half the width of the letter 'm'.)

That said, here are the guidelines for when to use these different dashes:
Hyphen (-)
Hyphens separate compound adjectives or hyphenated words
Examples: small-business owners or Pre-Raphaelite
En Dash (–)
En dashes substitute for the word “to” when writing dates
Example: January 15 – 17, 2010 
Note that there is a space on either side of the en dash.
Em Dash (—)
Em dashes separate the start of a sentence from the text when listing bullet points
  • Visual Communicators—Art Directors, Graphic Designers, etc.    
Em dashes also help when a list of items separated by commas contains additional commas that would make it difficult for the reader to understand:
(… the key Great Lakes states—Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, with the longest coastline of all, Ohio and Pennsylvania—have all agreed …).
Note that there is no space on either side of an em dash.
Okay, that's great, but all you see on your keyboard is a hyphen key right? Well you need to know a few commands to make en and em dashes happen and unfortunately it varies based on the program, but no worries, we have the short cuts listed below.

How to type en and em dashes:
PCs—for Microsoft Word (and most other PC word processing programs)
En dash
Typing a word followed by a space, two hyphens, another space and then a word will result in an en dash: word – word.
Em dash
Typing a word followed by two hyphens and then another word with no spaces either side of the hyphens yields an em dash: word—word.
Macs—for Adobe Creative Suite programs and anything within Mac OS
En dash
Key command: Alt/Option + - (hyphen)
Em dash
Key command: Shift + Alt/Option + - (hyphen)

**Please also note that a hyphen is not the same as the minus symbol. There is a separate glyph to use for this so that it matches the plus sign. (Thanks for the tip, Suzanne!)


postcollegecook said...

Oh wow, I've totally been using n-dashes when I should have used m-dashes. That's mostly because I didn't know there was an n-dash, and I didn't know how to type one! Thanks for sharing this useful info.

Jamey Stegmaier said...

You can also type an en-dash by hitting Ctrl + the hyphen on the keypad (on a full keyboard).

There's also another difficult-to-define use for en-dashes not described here. It can be used in instances when you have three words and two hyphens. But one of those hyphens should be an en-dash if the link between those two words isn't as strong as the link between the other two words. I'll try to think of an example:

Wide–open-door policy (I can't seem to type the real en-dash here, but it would be between wide and open. The two most important words are open and door--wide is somewhat extraneous and therefore is linked only loosely to the other two words)

Christine said...

@postcollegecook Glad you found it useful!

Christine said...

@Jamey That's interesting. I don't generally work on PCs, so I tested the Ctrl+hyphen key command (which is essentially what the PC equivalent to the Mac key commands are) on some PCs in different programs before publishing this post and it didn't work. I wonder if you have a different setting? What programs can you do that in?

Jamey Stegmaier said...

Try it on Word. It doesn't seem to work online, but it worked for me a minute ago on Word on a PC.

suzanne said...

Great post. And an additional item, a hyphen is not the same as the minus symbol. There is a separate glyph to use for this so that it matches the plus sign.

Christine said...

Great comment Suzanne. I think I'll add that at the bottom of the post :)