Software

Four ways to insert an em dash in a Word document

When you need an em dash, you can let Word enter it for you the easy way. If that approach doesn't suit your needs, try one of three manual methods.
The easiest way to enter an em dash ( — ) is to let Word do it.  Simply enter two hyphen characters between the two words you want to connect, and Word will turn the hyphens into an em dash. If this doesn't work for you, one of two possibilities exist:
  • You've inserted space characters between the words and the hyphen characters. When you enter spaces between the hyphens, Word formats the hyphens as an en dash ( – ), which is shorter than an em dash.
  • Someone has disabled the AutoCorrect option that formats hyphens as an em dash.

Now, this default won't work for everyone every single time. If you occasionally need two hyphens instead of an em dash, you can press [Ctrl]+Z and Word will undo the em dash character and restore the hyphens. If you find yourself doing this a lot, it might be more efficient to disable the AutoCorrect option and enter an em dash, when you require it, manually. You can disable this option as follows:

  1. From the Tools menu, choose AutoCorrect Options.
  2. Click the AutoFormat As You Type tab.
  3. Uncheck the Hyphens ( -- ) With ( — ) option.
  4. Click OK.

After disabling the AutoCorrect option, you'll have to enter an em dash manually. Fortunately, there are three easy methods:

  • Press [Ctrl]+[Alt]+-. You must use the minus sign (-) on the numeric keypad; if you use the hyphen character on the alphanumeric keypad, Word will change the cursor.
  • Hold down the [Alt] key and type 0151 on the numeric keypad.
  • Choose Symbol from the Insert menu, click the Special Characters tab, highlight the em dash, and click Insert.
Entering an em dash character is easy, whether you let Word do it or you choose to enter the character yourself.

About

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

30 comments
whitefern
whitefern

I tried the Ctrl+Alt+- way. My cursor changed to a thick horizontal one and then I noticed my Options command from the Tools menu had disappeared. Apparently, that key combination can also delete any menu item clicked on after it. I found the fix here: http://word.mvps.org/FAQs/Customization/RestoreMenuCmd.htm I think I'll memorise the Alt 0151 method!

fordmontgomery
fordmontgomery

ummm OK? for the average user, would this really make a difference? also, why is there no instructions for the Word 2007 user to change this option? For Word 2007 users: Go to Cute little [Microsoft Office button], then [Word Options], then Proofing, then [AutoCorrect Options], then [Auto Format] tab and unselect or select [Hyphens ( -- ) with ( ? ) option], whichever one is your preference.

lwebb
lwebb

This was a helpful, brief discussion for me. I work with an executive director who overuses the emdash and insists on it for the online version also. Thanks.

jdclyde
jdclyde

Especially with the layout. I know what I want it to look like, and the autoformat never gets me to where I want to be. I surely will pass on this "feature" as well. Are there a lot of times you find yourself using hyphens/dashes in your typing, Susan? Does the auto feature work out well for you? Like in many things, mostly personal preference.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

between an hyphen and a dash, and when is it appropriate to use each?

bobp
bobp

How do you insert one in Open Office?

ssharkins
ssharkins

Did you press the hyphen character on the regular keypad? You have to press the minus character on the numeric keypad.

jimmanis
jimmanis

This has been a fascinating discussion on a piece of punctuation that has almost disappeared in American usage. British novelists used it extensively in the 19th century. (See Walter Scott's Waverly novels) Americans have never much used it. A reader rarely encounters it in 20th century American novels; however, Emily Dickinson was quite the flamboyant lover of the little dash, and as I'm sure you all know, she was a 19th century poet, not appreciated until the 20th century. The dash, by the way, has little use in either business or technical writing as it introduces a level of complexity that will serve neither the writer nor the reader well in most forms of written communication.

kdavis
kdavis

If you are in a tech writing shop with a strict, detailed, style guide, you'd better know your en dash from your em dash as well as an en space from an em space. Trust me, a sharp-eyed editor can tell the difference.

hds3onlineaccts
hds3onlineaccts

See, the problem is you're starting out with Word. Using that, you'll never get the formatting just the way you want it. That's why Ashton-Tate invented WordPerfect!

ssharkins
ssharkins

I agree, it's all about the user. Personally, I use the double-hyphen to Em dash format daily. But, that's because it's a required format for a specific client. Otherwise, I might enter them manually, but the AutoFormat has become habit now. But, I'm with you--if you don't like it, just disable it. That's what I would do.

Marshwiggle
Marshwiggle

In my copyediting days we used a modified version of the AP Stylebook to maintain consistency throughout our organization. As I remember, it went like this: Hyphen: used to join two or more words to modify another; e.g., a little-known author is an author who is not widely known, not a known author who is little. En dash: normally used in place of "to" to indicate a range; e.g. Dec. 12 - 14, instead of Dec. 12 to 14. (Note: space-hyphen-space in Plain Text. Word will normally turn that sequence into an En dash, w/o spaces, in fonts where it is available.) Em dash: used much like parentheses, to insert additional material not directly related to the flow of thought or sentence; e.g., In my copyediting days--which were long ago--we used ... (Again, two hyphens in Plain Text; Word will turn them into an Em dash.) Additional note: AutoCorrect works pretty consistently as you type; but if you go back and insert two hyphens into existing text, you will probably get two hyphens. That would be a good time to use one of Susan's alternatives.

g01d4
g01d4

By Robin Williams. It's an easy reading typography guide that answers this and other similiar questions.

jimmanis
jimmanis

A hyphen joins, while a dash separates. Your question is a matter of usage, not grammar. The latter is biological, and the former a matter of custom. Thus the em dash is a matter of American printing custom, and the en dash one of British custom.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I know of two methods. Somebody else probably knows more. 1. Click on Insert | Special Character. Select "General Punctuation" in the Subset dropdown and select the — . 2. I've always used [Alt]0151; it's easier. In my installation of OOo, `the two hyphens auto-correct to an endash (–). I don't remember changing it, so I believe that's the default. As I don't use OOo Write that often, those are the only two methods I know. There may be others

ralph.bacon
ralph.bacon

M-dashes are fine when adding a little "aside" but can obscure the flow of a sentence, I find. Sometimes (but not always) brackets like I've used here can make it clear that I'm adding a little associated thought. It is clearer -- but not always -- than the M-dash. IMHO, of course! Perhaps it's because I'm British!

Jeanne Sheldon
Jeanne Sheldon

Ashton-Tate invented dBASE, not WordPerfect. You are probably thinking of Alan Ashton (no relation), the co-founder with Bruce Bastian of the Orem, Utah company that became WordPerfect. Either way, we're kind of stuck in the 80s.

N4AOF
N4AOF

Marshwiggle correctly noted that "AutoCorrect works pretty consistently as you type; but if you go back and insert two hyphens into existing text, you will probably get two hyphens." This happens because Word generally does its autocorrect function on words not individual characters. If you are editing text that you had previously entered and insert two hyphens between existing text (such as replacing some other punctuation mark), Word won't notice the double hyphen UNLESS you go the the end of the word following the double hyphen and insert a space. That way Word sees that you just typed WORD HYPHEN HYPHEN WORD which triggers the autocorrect. You can immediately backspace to remove the extra space and this won't undo the dash.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I don't see myself remembering the correct mark for each set of circumstances, but the information is still interesting. I didn't know there were different types of dashes, and it never occurred to me to type two adjacent hyphen characters. I wonder what it looks like when I paste it to the Internet? Let's find out: Hyphen: Little-known En dash: Little ? known Em dash: Little?known Just as I thought: The single hyphen was fine, and the en and em went to unknown characters.

mirossmac2
mirossmac2

Em dashes go: word[no space]a-dash-as-long-as-a-capital-M[no space] word: thus—thus. They are the preferred style in American orthography and the Grammar Girl article is excellent guidance. En dashes go: word[space]a-dash-as-long-as-a-lower-case-n[space]word: thus – thus. They are now the preferred style in British orthography and have the advantage of providing more natural line-breaking points, which makes for a more even-looking setting.

Styopa
Styopa

My version of OOo Writer works in exactly the same way as Word. Two hyphens with no spaces convert to an em dash; one or two hyphens with spaces either side convert to an en dash.

Marshwiggle
Marshwiggle

The AP Stylebook used to forbid brackets (parentheses), because they "obscure the flow of a sentence." Their solution was to use em dashes!

Marshwiggle
Marshwiggle

That probably explains a lot of the strange characters that keep turning up in online posts -- they're being typed first in a word processor, then pasted into HTML-based text boxes. Here are some variations on the same experiment: 1) Typed in Word, pasted into Notepad (plain text), then copied and pasted here: Little-known Little ? known Little?known. (The last one looks more like an En dash than an Em, so maybe there's no difference in a non-proportional font?) 2) Word to Wordpad (rich text), then here: Little-known Little - known Little-known 3) Word to Notepad, to Wordpad, then here: Little-known Little - known Little-known (Actually, when copied from Notepad to Wordpad, both the En and Em dashes were restored. They went back to hyphens here.) Well, that was a pleasant diversion. Thanks.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

does a good job with em dashes and en dashes, but explicitly skips my 'dash vs. hyphen' question. I'm not writing professionally and my question was purely academic. I'll probably continue using the character between the '0' and '=' keys on my keyboard to separate identifiers from their subject, thus: 14 - Tony Stewart 17 - Matt Kenseth 24 - Jeff Gordon 48 - Jimmie Johnson It may be wrong, but my audience is usually quite small and unconcerned.

Jeanne Sheldon
Jeanne Sheldon

Or was it just easier to let Word write the spec for the autocorrect feature?

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