En Dashes, the Editor’s Mark

The Sign of Zorro movie poster, detail

An en dash can function either as a strong hyphen or as an ordinary dash. As a strong hyphen, it can connect numbers or words. As an ordinary dash it’s nothing special.

But let’s say you’re reading a novel or a story and you encounter the first kind, the strong hyphen—not the more common variety that occurs between numbers, but that rare specimen that can join words. Congratulations, you’ve found the editorial equivalent of the mark of Zorro: “An editor was here.”

Most people, however, won’t even notice it.

What Is an En Dash, Exactly?

Hand markup for the en dash.

The en dash, also called an en rule, gets its name from the letter N. It’s longer than a hyphen but typically about half the length of an em dash, which was traditionally defined as the width of the letter M in a given font at a given size:

hyphen ‑
en dash –
em dash —

The en dash was once used almost exclusively as a shorthand for “to,” as in number ranges.

One of the earliest mentions of the mark in the Oxford English Dictionary, under “en, n.,” cites the original 1893 edition of Hart’s Rules, the in-house style guide for Oxford University Press:

En rules are to be used in such cases as 1880–1, and not hyphens or em rules.

This use of the en dash, as a longer and more visible hyphen, is both practical and aesthetic: “123–24” is easier to read than “123‑24.” For most book publishers and many others, this use remains standard.

En Dash as Dash

In contemporary British style, the en dash – with space before and after, as in this sentence – may be used as an ordinary dash, or what’s sometimes called a parentheses dash.

In Chicago style, the em dash—with no space on either side—is preferred.

But anyone can spot an ordinary dash. And like en dashes in number ranges, these alternative dashes are common. What we’re looking for is the more elusive case of the en dash with an open compound.*

En Dashes with Open Compounds

CMOS, in its 1906 first edition, specified an en dash in place of a hyphen not only in ranges but also in the case of a compound adjective before the noun “where one of the components contains more than one word” (¶ 167):

New York–Chicago freight traffic

That example also suggests a relationship—freight traffic between New York and Chicago—but the stated rationale for the example was the open compound.

The idea is that the en dash ties “Chicago” not just with “York” but with “New York.” It literally bridges the space between words. Another example would be “pre–Civil War elections.”

This use of the en dash is at the same time more subtle and less common than its use in number ranges. And that’s exactly why editors like it so much.

Let’s investigate.

A Tale of Two Versions

Best-selling author Zadie Smith has had a number of essays and stories published in the New Yorker, where they are easy to search and analyze for en dashes—or their absence.† Some of these pieces have in turn been published elsewhere, and the differences can tell us something about the en dash.

Let’s look at two versions of a sentence written by Smith in a story called “The Embassy of Cambodia.” First, here’s the version from the New Yorker, where the story was first published (in the issue of that magazine dated February 11 and 18, 2013):

In the slim drawer of a faux-Louis XVI console, in the entrance hall of the Derawals’ primary residence, one can find a stockpile of guest passes.

Now here’s the same sentence as published on page 470 of The Best American Magazine Writing 2014, an anthology compiled by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014):

In the slim drawer of a faux–Louis XVI console, in the entrance hall of the Derawals’ primary residence, one can find a stockpile of guest passes.

Notice the difference?

The two versions differ in one and only one way. The hyphen in the magazine (“faux-Louis XVI console”) has become an en dash in the book (“faux–Louis XVI console”). This en dash is pure Chicago style.

And just to be thorough, there are twenty-one additional en dashes in the book that aren’t in the magazine. The story is divided into sections that are “scored” like a game of badminton: the headings “0 ‑ 1,” “0 ‑ 2,” . . . “0 ‑ 21” in the New Yorker become “0–1,” “0–2,” . . . “0–21” in the book. These en dashes in lieu of spaced hyphens are also pure Chicago style (see CMOS 6.78).

The New Yorker doesn’t do en dashes.‡ Book publishers, on the other hand, generally do.**

Building Bridges

Which version of Smith’s sentence do you prefer?

Hyphen or dash, readers are obligated to mentally connect “faux” not just to “Louis” but to “Louis XVI.”

The en dash in the anthologized version is supposed to help with that. By being longer than a hyphen, the en dash suggests that “faux” might connect to more than just the word that follows.

That’s the idea, but do readers understand this?

Some might. After all, the even longer em dash has the power to set off all the words that follow—up to the next dash or the end of the sentence, whichever comes first. The longer the dash, the more power it has over its immediate surroundings.

But most readers, unless they’ve been trained to edit or proofread, probably won’t notice that a stray en dash like the one in Smith’s story isn’t in fact a hyphen.

The bottom line is that the hyphen in the New Yorker didn’t spoil Zadie Smith’s story. Still, whoever added that en dash for the anthology did well to do so. If nothing else, that en dash and the en dashes in the headings tell us that Smith’s story got the close editorial attention it deserved when it was republished in a new context.

Let’s look at one more example.

Open City, Open Compound

There’s an en dash that occurs relatively early in Teju Cole’s Open City (New York: Random House, 2011), a novel featuring a peripatetic narrator with a writer’s eye for the layers of history and humanity that permeate modern Manhattan. Perhaps I remembered that en dash because it isn’t quite Chicago style:

Between the mid–sixteenth century and the end of the seventeenth, at least forty whales were beached on the shores of Flanders and the northern Netherlands. (p. 51)

The narrator is standing outside Trinity Church as he traces the origins of fellow New Yorker Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to certain events in the Old World. But that en dash, which connects the prefix “mid-” to the open compound “sixteenth century,” could just as easily have been a hyphen.

And this is where Chicago draws the line. In general, Chicago takes a conservative approach to the en dash. Where a hyphen would do equally as well, choose the hyphen. In the example from Cole, “mid-sixteenth” works as a modifier that in turn modifies “century.” Which century? The mid-sixteenth. No need to extend “mid-” to both elements.

Furthermore, en dashes work best with proper nouns. In “faux–Louis XVI” and “pre–Civil War,” the capital letters define the limits of the open compound. In “mid–sixteenth century,” the open compound doesn’t have capital letters to signal where it begins and ends.

No matter. Chicago style or not, I was glad to see that en dash in Open City.

Toward the end of the book I would encounter two more, both of which happen to feature a bridge, and both of which follow Chicago style: “Brooklyn Bridge–City Hall subway station” (p. 217) and “Fort Lee–bound side of the bridge” (p. 241).

At each dash, including that first one, I paused to tip my hat to my fellow editor: I see what you’ve done, and I’m grateful for your work.

* Style guides vary, but the en dash is also commonly used in a scientific name or other concept attributed to two or more people (Epstein–Barr virus) and to express a relationship (student–teacher meetings). These two uses aren’t currently required by Chicago (see CMOS 6.80).

† The searchable page scans at Google Books, on the other hand, don’t typically distinguish between a hyphen and an en dash. Dashes and hyphens vary by font, and OCR (optical character recognition) isn’t very good at telling them apart. So a lot of online text simply doesn’t lend itself to such an analysis.

‡ At least not in fiction. A search through the fiction published in the New Yorker between June 2019 and June 2020 turned up just one, in a range: “b. 1819–d. 1849”; see Allan Gurganus, “The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor,” May 4, 2020. In all other cases, including ranges, hyphens are used where en dashes might have been. But an online-only Culture Desk piece by Maya Phillips, “ ‘See You Yesterday’ and the Perils—and Promise—of Time-Travelling While Black,” from May 27, 2019, features two en dashes, in “an excellent Bill and Ted–style adventure” and “pre–Civil War Maryland.”

** It should be noted also that the en dash is rarely used in news publishing. According to the AP Stylebook, arbiter for journalists everywhere: “Because of news industry specifications for text transmission, AP [the Associated Press] has never used en dashes, also known as short dashes.” The practice at the New Yorker has no doubt been influenced by this journalistic convention.

Top image: Movie poster for The Sign of Zorro (1960; detail). © Zorro Productions Inc. Used with permission.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

~ ~ ~

Russell Harper BitmojiRussell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition

Order the book
Subscribe online

Please see our commenting policy.