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–

Ooohhhh, no you don’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 Campbell 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.

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.

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!