September 28, 2008 / Fall 2008 / InDesign

In Step with InDesign – Don’t dis the dash, em and en

Written by Don Leonard

The idea for this article came about one day when searching for an alternative to using parenthesis in a document. Someone told me they represented a whisper to the audience, and if I needed to whisper something then it might not be worth saying. Personally, I tend to skip over anything in parenthesis, thinking it is usually data not essential to the paragraph I am reading.

However, since in my own writing I humorously tend to believe everything put on the page is valuable, I have decided to avoid the parenthesis and begin using the more streamlined dash, thus guiding the reader to absorb each word. My only problem, which dash to use and when?

Em Dashes
In the old days of typesetting, the em dash was commonly equal to the width of a given font’s capital M. Today with electronic fonts, the width is typically wider especially in condensed and script fonts. Back when I was learning basic keyboarding skills — actually learning on an IBM Selectric typewriter — the way to make an em dash was to put two hyphens together. Problem is, the space between the two always showed and just looked awkward. It makes me wonder if that is why the use of the parenthesis was more common or even preferred.

The em dashes represent a break in the writer’s thoughts, so it could be used to replace parenthesis, colons or semicolons when a different context or strength is required. Remember the reference to parenthesis as a whisper? With an em dash, it is no longer a whisper, but a full-voice statement that should retain the reader’s attention.

The next issue for me was spacing. Should there be spaces between the dash and the words surrounding it? The answer is no for formal writing and yes for journalism-style writing. If for some reason, your style is to use no spaces, note that some fonts have glyphs on either end of a letter that could run into the dash. The solution in InDesign is to use a Thin Space, or better yet a Hair Space to separate the characters: Go to Type, then Insert White Space, then Thin Space or Hair Space.

“Once upon a time in a kingdom — here we go again.”

“Yearbook pages are due next Tuesd — Help! Pictures! We need pictures today!”

“What’s the big deal if I eat week-old pizza — call 911.”

En Dashes
In this case, the name has nothing to do with the size of the capital N. En dashes are about half the size of their big brother em. Most of the time, the en dash is used interchangeably with the shorter and fatter hyphen. This is easy to understand, but quite incorrect.

Think of en dashes as characters to replace the words through, to, or from when you have a number or date range. There are other uses, but these are the most basic and common. For example:

The score was 8–4.
William Shakespeare 1564–1616

Notice the difference from a hyphen:
The score was 8-4
William Shakespeare 1564-1616

En dashes should not be surrounded by spaces. However, you can use the Thin Space or Hair Space if they are touching the edge of the nearest character.

Hyphens
The most common and correct use of a hyphen is to break words at the syllable when a sentence wraps to the next line. Hyphens also join compound words such as rock-and-roll, or when creating a list of compound words with a common ending; for example: One-, two- and four-foot segments. Hyphens can also be used when spelling a word out — such as f-o-n-t.

How to place on your page
You will not find the em dash or en dash keys on your keyboard. However, in InDesign with a couple of different shortcut-key combinations you can quickly create an em dash, en dash, hyphen, underscore, discretionary and non-breaking hyphens.

In InDesign CS3, go to Type – Insert Special Character – Hyphens and Dashes. Or in InDesign CS2, just go to Type – Insert Special Character and look for Em Dash or En Dash. However, if you want to impress your friends and be the professional designer we know you are, use the shortcut keys. All of them use some combination of Alt, Shift and the – key on Windows, or Opt, Shift and – keys on the Mac.

  • I liked this article. It’s been years since I read anything about em and en dashes and this was helpful. I believe I will use this article in my class as a great teaching tool.

Don Leonard

Don Leonard supported the first yearbooks created using desktop publishing software in the early 1990s. He trains yearbook sales representatives and customers online, desktop publishing and photo-editing programs. Don also is involved in video and audio production, creating video tutorials for Walsworth's programs and Enhancements.