Dash Away, Dash Away, Dash Away All!

You know the button on your keyboard with two little lines on it? That is not an all-purpose, use-me-whenever-you-want-a-line-between-words button. If you push it, you get a hyphen (-). If you shift-push it, you get an underscore (_), which I haven’t used since Gmail did away with all those line-filled email addresses everybody used to have, so we can safely ignore that option. (If you have an underscore in your email address, I still love you.)

Hyphens are very useful creatures. They’re great for excessively long modifiers (such as “use-me-whenever-you-want-a-line-between-words button”). They come in handy when you want to hyphenate your name. They’re invaluable for numbers. (In English at least; where you would neatly hyphenate “twenty-three” in English, you just smush together “dreiundzwanzig” in German. This gets really fun when you get to the big numbers, like viertausendsechshundertsiebenundneunzig.)

But one day in high school, I noticed that hyphens sometimes fall short. You know how sometimes you’ll be reading a book—and there it is, a long line that marks a suspenseful pause in the sentence. Or the author inserts some extra information—we like to do that, you know—and sets it off with those mysterious long lines. It wasn’t until college that I finally learned—


Why is it called that? Well, the dash part is fairly obvious. It’s a dash. What makes it an em dash is that it is the same width as the letter m . . .


. . . as opposed to the en dash, which is the width of the letter n. But we’ll get to one that later.

So how do you make an em dash? Well, on WordPress, you click the Symbols button and search for the longest dash. Haven’t figured out a shortcut for that one yet.

BUT there are TWO easy ways to do it on Microsoft Word.

1) Type two dashes between two words (e.g. like–this). When you hit space after the second word, voila! You have an em dash.

2) Find the other hyphen button on your keyboard, the one that hangs out by the number pad. Press ctrl+alt+num-. (“Num-” stands for the number pad hyphen. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure that out.) There’s your em dash! This method is particularly useful when your characters are having an intense discussion and one of the interrupts the—

Well, you get the picture. If you have a Mac, you’re on your own. I would guess it has something to do with that funky little button where someone took a bite out of an apple.

Now go forth and wow your friends, teachers, and editors with your punctuation prowess!



  1. On a Mac — just use option-shift- and the dash key (just to the left of the + and + key).
    Possibly sounds a little complicated but quickly becomes second nature.

    In the days of yore (love that word! It almost makes you want to go there …) when type was kept in wee boxes called cases (capitals in the upper cases of course) letters had different widths (as you mentioned) so of course they needed the appropriate dashes to suit when due.
    Type per se and linotype machines and portable typewriters and such seem to be dinosaurs and dodos now but thank heavens nomenclature at least pays tribute to heritage.
    I once typed a letter on a rolling ship … oops, I was once on a heavily rolling ship using a portable typewriter with a very weak carriage-return spring, there’s no way I can simulate it here for you but rolling to port all the letters were squashed together. Looked weird, but had character …

  2. Funny – I wish to thank Argus for the Mac advice. i use a Mac and am computer illiterate – would love to learn all the short cuts. I think the keyboard should have a capital “I” It’s such a pain having to hit the shift button so many times. Haha.

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