Just Your Type

Type, design, writing and other funny stuff

Do you have to dash?

by | Oct 8, 2013 | Typography

So you have a train of thought—you get siderailed—then you get back on track. That’s a good time to use a dash. To make it you just type two hyphens–

Oh, no you dun’t!

A hyphen is a hyphen. Find it between the 0 and the = on your keyboard. It’s used to hyphenate. Hyphenated words, like jack-ass. Or to create compound adjectives, like that hyphen-obsessed book designer guy.

Don’t use a hyphen when you mean a dash. Your text will look empty at best, and vague at worst – like this. A double-hyphen–that’s just double-wrong.

Instead, put both your hands to work and type a real dash. Choose from two:

  • The M-dash looks like this . It’s so named because it’s usually about the width of a capital M. Or imagine a square that’s as wide as your font is tall.  
  • The N-dash  guess why it’s called that – is a little narrower, about half the width of an M.
The author, thoughtfully pointing out an incorrectly constructed dash.

Choose your weapon

When you want a dash, here’s a rare gift from the snobby typographical world: either choice is acceptable. [Gasp!] But before you go dancing naked in the streets, let me add one sniff of snobbery: the N-dash always has a space before and after itlike this. The M-dash never has spacesuse it like this. An M-dash with spaces around it creates way too much division — see what I mean?

Beyond that, you can choose which you 
like better.

No wait—not quite. Be consistent. Pick a team. Be an Emmie or an Ennie.

In the US, the M-dash is far more common. Europe is more likely to use the N-dash.

How to make a mad dash

On a Mac: create an M-dash using shift +option + . For the N-dash, select option  .

On a PC: the M-dash is found at control + alt +  . If that doesn’t work, try alt + 0151. For the N-dash use alt +  . If that doesn’t work, try alt + 0150.  If you want to make it easy on yourself, you can type the lazy way with a space-dash-space, then do a search-and-replace through your final draft to get the proper dash you want. Software often includes these in a “Special Characters” choice under the <Edit> menu.

Just like that, you’re legit!

Another use for the N-dash: it’s the proper choice for a range of numbers, like from 100–200.

More digression: M and N are typographical measurements that are relative to the font being used. That is, each gets bigger or smaller as the type does. So there’s also an M-space, which is really fat, and an N-space, which is half as wide, but noticeably bigger than a standard space.

For the type geek, there’s also a minus sign in your arsenal. It sits a little higher than a dash, so it aligns better with digits. Here are dashes: 1–2–3–4–5 vs minus signs: 1−2−3−4−5. You gotta look close, but print book designers are used to looking close.

Now you can dash off, knowing you’re doing it right. And it’s suddenly going to bug you when other people don’t.

Welcome to being a type snob.


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Who's this guy?

"Mick" is Michael Campbell, a book designer, graphic artist and writer. His humor column, The Dumpster, closes every issue of Food & Spirits Magazine. Author of Are You Going To Eat That?, and the new 2017 book of seventy hilarious all new essays, Of Mice and Me.
A singer songwriter too. New CD My Turn Now is available now!