by Arun Sinha

Hyphens often creep into web copy in places where en dashes or em dashes belong. When you use a hyphen where you should use an en dash, it's usually not a problem. In formal writing, however, you can't get away with using a hyphen instead of an en dash.

And you definitely can't use a hyphen instead of a em dash. Doing this makes the copy awkward and forces the reader to reread the sentence to figure out its meaning. Eventually, after reading it a couple of times, they may realize that the hyphen is standing in for an em dash.

Fortunately, this problem can be easily avoided, as it's fairly simple to ensure you're entering the right dash — hyphen, en or em — in your writing. How?

First, a few definitions.

A hyphen is the smallest dash available. It's the key next to the zero on a regular keyboard. It is used to join two words together that express a single idea. Like post-op or live-action. Sometimes it's used to avoid doubling vowels, as in pre-empt or co-operate.

An en dash is slightly longer than a hyphen. Its purpose is to show a range, as in: Boston beat Miami 98–83.

An en dash also shows a connection between two places, like New York–Boston corridor. There are other uses for it too, but these are the most frequent ones.

Which brings us to the em dash. It's twice as long as the en dash, and is used most often in a sentence to set apart two independent but related ideas. Example: He would make a good spouse—but not for me.

How to Enter Hyphens, En Dashes and Em Dashes in HTML and Word

To type a hyphen in html or Microsoft Word, just press the hyphen key.

The html codes for the en dash are – or –

To type an en dash in Microsoft Word, press the Ctrl and minus sign keys on the numeric keypad (on a standard keyboard). Or press the Alt key while typing 0150 on the numeric keypad.

If your laptop doesn't have separate numeric keys, do this: Type the word preceding the en dash, leave a space, type a hyphen, leave another space, type your next word and leave a space again. Word automatically converts the hyphen to an en dash.

Html codes for the em dash are — or —

To produce an em dash in Word, press Ctrl-Alt-minus sign on the numeric keypad. Or press the Alt key while typing 0151 on the numeric keypad.

But what if you don't have a standard keyboard, or are writing a blog post, or don't want to mess with html?

Go ahead and use a hyphen instead of an en dash. Not too many people will quibble, and there will be no loss of meaning.

And create a pseudo-em dash by one of two ways: leave spaces before and after a hyphen - like this, or type two consecutive hyphens--like this. Some blog platforms may automatically convert a double hyphen to an em dash.

And then your hyphens, en dashes and em dashes will all be in their proper places, and your readers won’t stumble over your words.

Arun Sinha is president of Access Communications, a digital marketing, content creation and web development company in Stamford, Connecticut, USA. Visit http://www.accessc.com for more information on copy writing, websites, and Internet marketing.

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