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Are you confused by the hyphen, en rule, and em rule?

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

No wonder! Everyone uses dashes in their writing. You'll find them in texts ranging from novels to emails. The tricky part is choosing the correct one. With three different ones to choose from, that's not always an easy task. Unfortunately, these types of errors don't get picked up by your standard spelling and grammar check.


This is actually one of the most common errors I flag in texts.


I will explain all three types of dashes (and where to find them on your keyboard) so that you can make an informed choice when you're typing away.


Hyphen -

The hyphen is by far the most used and misapplied type of dash. New Hart's Rules state that there are two types of hyphens. The hard hyphen and the soft hyphen.


The hard hyphen merges two or more words (compound words) before a noun. For example, 'solar power' is a noun. But when you say: "This is a solar-powered building", it becomes an adjective, and we add the hyphen.


Use the soft hyphen to:

  1. Break up a word at the end of a line, which is mandatory in justified text and optional in non-justified text.

  2. Indicate stammering, paused or intermittent speech. "W-w-what?"

  3. Indicate omitted words: countrymen and -women.


Where can I find it?

MacBook and Microsoft: press the button with two dashes on it. You may know it as the minus sign. You can find it between the zero (o) and plus (+) buttons.


En rule / En dash –

The en rule is slightly longer than the hyphen. It is named the en rule because the dash was originally the same size as the capital N.

  1. You use the en rule as a parenthetical dash in British publishing. For example, Hobbits – those beings with large, hairy feet – are very friendly.

  2. You also use it to show a range. For example, 20–25 degrees celsius.

  3. The en rule also shows a connection. It can mean to or and. E.g. the writer–reader relationship or the Smith–Jones project. Note that if you use the hyphen instead of the en rule, it indicates one person only. E.g. Mrs Smith-Jones. By applying the en rule, the reader can distinguish the number of people involved. E.g. the Smith-Jones–Williams project.


Where can I find it?

MacBook: option + hyphen (-)


Microsoft is a bit trickier. I do not own a Microsoft computer, so I found some tips online that you can try. Not all may work for you. However, I know from previous experience that AutoFormat is quite reliable. There are four ways to add a dash:

  1. You may have to switch on NumLock for this to work: Ctrl + hyphen (-)

  2. Hold Alt and type 8211 on the numeric keypad.

  3. Use AutoFormat: word, space, dash (-), space, word, space.

  4. Go the the 'insert' tab, and find the en rule in the list of symbols.


Em rule / Em dash —

The em rule is slightly longer than the en rule. It is named the em rule because the dash was originally the same size as the capital M.

  1. You use the em rule as a parenthetical dash in American publishing. Unlike the en rule, there is no space before or after the dash. For example, Elfs—those beings with pointy ears—live for centuries.

  2. It is also applied to mark an interruption in dialogue. "I know, but he s—" "Yes, yes, I know."

  3. Or to mark the omission of a word. "Mr D— gave us a pound."


Where can I find it?

MacBook: shift + option + hyphen (-)


Microsoft:

  1. You may have to switch on NumLock for this to work: Ctrl + Alt + hyphen (-)

  2. Hold Alt and type 8212 on the numeric keypad.

  3. Use Autoformat: type 2x hyphen followed by a space. --

  4. Go the the 'insert' tab, and find the em rule in the list of symbols.

If you are writing for someone else, always check their preferences first. For example, a British company may wish to use the em rule as a parenthetical dash instead of the en rule. If there is no style sheet present, my advice is to adhere to the rules above.


References:

Waddingham, A. (Ed.), 2014, New Hart's Rules, The Oxford Style Guide, second edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford


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