How and When To Type En and Em Dashes On a Mac

Did you know that that there are three different types of dashes: the hyphen, en dash and em dash? Most people use the hyphen for everything, but the en and em dashes should be used in many cases instead of a hyphen. Learn how to type them and when to use them.
Video Transcript / Captions
Closed captioning for this video is available on YouTube: How and When To Type En and Em Dashes On a Mac.

So whether writing a book, an email, or text message a lot of us like to be grammatically correct when typing on our computers. Now this is one thing when talking about letters and words. But grammar also includes punctuation. One type of punctuation is the dash. But there actually is no dash character. There are three different types of dashes. One of them, the one we use most often, is actually not even called a dash. It's called a hyphen. This is what we get by default. Many of us use the hyphen for all of the different dashes.

So, for instance, you may want to type a compound word like this, well-liked, and using the hyphen on your keyboard. It's usually to the right of the zero on American keyboards and is the correct one of use. It's not a dash but a hyphen. Here are some other examples. High-volume. Non-existant. Now, sometimes, depending upon which dictionary you're using, you may not use a hyphen on any of these. But if you do make sure you just type the plain normal hyphen that's on your keyboard. That's what it's mainly there for.

It's also used to separate numbers in things like telephone numbers. It can be used also in names. So when you see a hyphenated name you would use the hyphen. But that's pretty much it. Those are the only places you should be using a hyphen. But there are other places you would be using a dash. But these are different characters.

So the first type of dash I want to talk about is called the en dash. It's usually spelled en although there's some debate on how to actually write down the word en dash. It's called en dash because the dash is about the size, the width, of the letter n. You use this in cases where you're going to have a range of things. Like a range of numbers. So, for instance, if you want to say seven to ten you could say 7 and then the en dash to 10. Not the hyphen.

How do you type the en dash? Well you hold the Option key down on your keyboard and you press the hyphen key. This gives you a different character than the regular hyphen. So notice the regular hyphen how short that is. Option and hyphen gives you the en dash, a longer one. You could use it for any kind of range. 1990-1999. July-October. That's pretty much what you use the en dash for.

Now there's a third type of dash. The em dash. This is a wider dash and you can guess from the name that it's supposed to be the width of the letter m, rather than the letter n. There's an easy way to remember it. n is a shorter letter and m is twice of an n in width so that's the em dash.
What's the em dash used for? Well, it's used basically just like parentheses or as an aside in some text. So something like this. The quick brown fox--though he looks more red than brown to me--jumps over the lazy dog. Now to type the em dash you hold the Option and the Shift key down. So a hyphen is just pressing the hyphen key. The en dash is Option, hyphen. The em dash is Shift, Option, hyphen.

Now notice I didn't put any extra spaces around the em dash. This is because, in most fonts, the em dash actually includes a little bit of extra space to the left or right. You can see it here in these characters. So you don't need any extra space and in most grammar guides I see that you're not supposed to put any extra space around the em dash.

Now there are some other uses for the em dash. For instance, when using quotes. So there are actually even more than this but these are the ones typically used. For instance in typesetting there's actually a slightly different character for using a minus like in a mathematical formula. But on a computer, in almost all fonts even if there is a minus character included, the hyphen and the minus character are indistinguishable. In fact when doing work on a computer and wanting to perform calculations in Spotlight or Calculator or whatever you're using the hyphen as the minus key anyway. So it's kind of just a given rule now on computing that you use the hyphen when you mean minus even though technically it's a different character.

But as far as the en dash and the em dash if you're worried about grammar in the rest of what you type you should probably look into using these characters in the Option, hyphen for the en dash and the Shift, Option, hyphen for the em dash and using them in your text as well as the rest of all the grammar rules that you follow.

Comments: 29 Responses to “How and When To Type En and Em Dashes On a Mac”

    Julie Armstrong
    2 months ago

    grammar and Mac OS, thanks Gary – never knew this!

    2 months ago

    Very interesting. I never knew this. don’t think I learned it in school.


    2 months ago

    Thanks Gary. Sometimes when I’m writing, a hyphen appears for a dash – and sometimes a dash appears.
    Never knew how to access them individually. Brill!

    2 months ago

    Light dawns! Thank you, Gary! I never knew the difference between the en dash and the em dash, let alone how to type them on the Mac.

    Cameron C Cook.
    2 months ago

    Hi Gary, Interesting, I was unaware of the en dash or em dash. But I found something interesting on my iMac. If it type the hyphen twice, or three times, I get an em dash. This using the Text Edit app. Holding the option key and then hitting the hyphen key is the only way I’ve found to get the en dash character.

    2 months ago

    Gary is brilliant!

    Don Palmer
    2 months ago

    Thanks for sharing your journalistic skills with us.

    2 months ago

    In MS Word for Mac, you can convert hyphens to dashes automatically as you type.
    Go to: Tools>AutoCorrect Options>AutoFormat As You Type> and check the box beside “Hypens (–) with dash (—)”
    This will convert double hyphens to em-dashes.
    It will also convert “space-hyphen-space” into “space-en dash-space” as you type. In some style guides, this is preferred to using an em-dash without spaces.

    2 months ago

    Cameron & Jeff: Yes, different apps will allow you to type en and em dashes in other ways. Pages also has that, in Edit, Substitutions, Smart Dashes.

    Betti Franceschi
    2 months ago

    I learned this in high-school typing class in 1951. Thanks for keeping clarity alive!

    2 months ago

    Well I’ll be, thanks Gary.

    Lazaro Jordan
    2 months ago

    Hi Gary, never knew this before and your explanation is very effective and simple to understand. I appreciate you gave us this lesson.

    Barry Murray
    2 months ago

    Having a magazine publisher before Pagemaker–Quark–InDesign came along I feel limited when trying to use good typographic standards on the WWW.

    Has ASCII built-in a work around for browser delivery of en and em dashes to display in something other than gibberish symbols?

    And having set moveable type by hand the standard back then was SPACE –––EM TEXT with a close of TEXT–––EM SPACE.

    2 months ago

    Barry: Modern browsers and wen site software do a much better job with special characters today. But you can use – and — when writing HTML too.

    2 months ago

    Thanks Gary, that’s very helpful.

    2 months ago

    Gary, what is this character called & used for? ~ Thanks!

    2 months ago

    Kathleen: That is the ampersand. In grammar, it is a shortcut for the word “and” usually used in titles. In coding, like HTML, it is used for special things.

    Bernard Hedley
    2 months ago

    Gary, thanks for clearly explaining hyphens and dashes. However, the terms actually originate with hot-metal type setting before total acceptance of proportional spacing. The basic measure was the em which was a 12 point measure and the en was exactly half being 6 points. These, of course, varied as to the font size being 12, 10, 8, 6 points etc. The was also a third measure being the “nonple” or nonpareil which was 3 points. To add to the confusion there was also the 10 point Cicero scale.

    Dana Stevens
    2 months ago

    Thanks Gary, very interesting. Made me think that a video on using the keyboard viewer could be interesting to people. I’ve found it very handy when trying to type characters that I very rarely use that are not shown on the standard keyboard.

    Bob Evans
    2 months ago

    Thanks Gary. I know about hyphens, en and em dashes, but until now I didn’t know how to produce them on a Mac keyboard. And I’d still like to know how a create ascii characters on a Mac? Can you tell me that? Thanks Bob

    2 months ago

    Thanks, good to know this.

    2 months ago

    Bob: What do you mean? All characters are ASCII characters.

    Joe Quinn
    2 months ago

    Another nugget from Gary.
    Good to know.
    Many thanks.

    2 months ago

    Gary: you responded to Kathleen regarding ampersand. I believe she was referring to the tilde ” ~ ” not “&” in her question. thanks for the dash tip!

    2 months ago

    Dan: ~ (tilde) is a weird one. I can’t think of any legitimate use in English grammar today, and Wikipedia doesn’t seem to mention any. In the text world, we do use it for some things, like old-fashioned personal website addresses like

    Russell Johnston
    2 months ago

    Watching the video, I noticed you change Smith-jones to Smith-Jones with a single keystroke, rather than moving the cursor in front of the “j” hitting the delete key and typing J. What was the keystroke?

    2 months ago

    Russell: I just selected the j (using the cursor to drag-select it) and pressed J to replace it.

    Jackie MacDonald
    2 months ago

    Re the tilde, it is used in Spanish over the letter n to change the sound to ñ, pronouced ‘nyay’.

    2 weeks ago

    Use ~300 for approximately 300.

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