How To Type Em And En Dashes Outside Your Word Processor

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The en dash (–) is my favorite piece of punctuation–it’s perfect for inserting points, like this one–but I’ve been neglecting it in my writing for a couple of years, for a really dumb reason.

What’s my dumb reason? I’ve stopped using Word and Open/Libre Office. I know their shortcut for an em dash–type two dashes between two words and they will transform once you type a space after the second word.

I stopped using word processors when I started writing for the Internet, however, because they add a bunch of nonsense code to my writing. But outside programs with their own shortcut, I never got around to learning how to write em or en dashes. This means the text editors and browsers I now do my writing in are dashless wastelands. There are online tools for creating em dashes, and I’ve resorted to Googling “en dash” and copying the resulting punctuation, though

Not anymore. I’m going to stop restructuring sentences out of laziness, and I’m going to help you do so as well. Here’s how to make your favorite punctuation on your favorite operating system. Keep reading!

Create Em and En Dashes On A Mac!

First up: the easy one. Apple’s operating system OS X comes with a couple of keyboard shortcuts that make typing em and en dash a snap.

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For an en dash (–), use “Option” and “-“. For an em dash (—), use “Option”, “Shift” and “-“.

That’s it! Now let’s see how Microsoft does in comparison.

Create Em and En Dashes on Windows!

Windows users can easily make an em dash if they’re using Word: just type two dashes between two words, as I explained above.

Outside of Word, however, the story is different: you need to use four digit alt codes. You’re going to need a keyboard with a number pad for this–the block of numbers to the right of the arrow keys:

how to type em dash

Laptops without physical number pads can occasionally use the “Fn” key and some letter keys instead of a number keypad–search your keyboard for blue numbers. Lacking that, you may be out of luck.

To create you dash, first put your cursor where you’d like it and hold down the “Alt” button. Now you need to type a four digit code: 0150 for the en dash (–) or 0151 for the em dash (—).

Find more codes for characters here, if you’re interested.

Create Em and En Dashes On Linux!

So Windows makes things a lot more complicated than OS X does. How does Linux compare? As usual for Linux, there are multiple options–two in this case. Also somewhat typical: they’re not as simple as the Mac solution, but both seem less arbitrary than the Windows one.

You can use whichever method you like, but I’ve made an editorial judgement–subtly displayed in the headers below.

The Stupid Way

So it turns out one way to make em and en dashes in Linux is pretty similar to the Windows method outlined above: you need to type four-digit codes. The good news: you don’t need to a number pad to use them.

Here’s what you do: press “Ctl”, “Shift” and “u”. Doing so will create a magical, underlined “u”. When this appears, you can enter a four-character digit to create whatever character you like. For an em dash, type “2013.” For an em dash, type “2014”. Not simple, but doable.

how to type en dash

Want to learn the other codes? Load the “Character Map” program, if your distro came with one. You can find any character here–the code is at the bottom-left of the window (highlighted above).

The Good Way

For two miserable hours I thought the above set of instructions were my fate. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong. Further digging and searching made me aware of the “Compose” key, which makes the creation of many different characters–especially the characters with accents common in French, Spanish and a number of other languages– simple to create.

The compose key also makes typing dashes quick: “Compose” follow by “—” creates an em dash and “–.” creates an en dash.

“But Justin,” I hear you saying, “I don’t have a Compose key on my keyboard. You’re crazy!”

I might be crazy, but you can easily simulate a compose button on your keyboard. In Gnome, KDE or Unity you just need to open the “Keyboard Layout” in your settings menu. Then click “options”, and you’ll be able to map your Compose key.

how to type em dash

Set whatever key you’re fine with losing. I got rid of caps lock–a key that allows me to type passwords incorrectly and do nothing else useful. Voila–you’ve got a compose key! Just press it, follow by “—” for an em dash or “–.” for an en dash.

If you’re interested in creating other characters, check out this awesome list of Compose Key shortcuts.

Conclusion

So there you have it: how to type the en and em dash in any program, using all three major operating systems. I think it’s a little crazy that keyboards don’t come with a built-in way to type these characters–they’re essential to modern English–but it seems a lot about the modern keyboard hasn’t changed much since the age of the typewriter. English has, and today dashes are common.

Which key on the keyboard would you replace with dashes, if you were tasked with re-designing the keyboard? Let me know in the comments below, along with any dash methods I failed to outline above. Thanks!

Image Credit: Keyboard image at top by Mathias Bigge

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Comments (17)
  • NDillon

    Em dashes separate phrases, as in the second paragraph, not em dashes.

  • The Punctuator

    It’s very easy on a Mac or any iOS device (iPhone, iPod, iPad) to use
    a hyphen –
    or an N dash –
    or an M dash —
    in whichever program you’re or application you’re in.

    In Windows, if you’re not using Microsoft Word, it’s only possible with the ALT key strokes on a desktop computer:
    a hyphen – is already on the keyboard (aka minus sign)
    ALT 0150 for N dash –
    ALT 0151 for M dash —

    It’s impossible to get the M or N dashes (outside of Word) on a laptop PC!

    On usage (culled from around the web):
    Hyphen –
    The hyphen is the shortest of the three and is used most commonly to combine words, e.g. compounds such as well-being, advanced-level, and mass-produced.
    It is also used for fractions, e.g. two-thirds.
    Closed compound words like counterintuitive have no hyphen in modern English, except for uncommon combinations that are confusing or ambiguous without a hyphen.
    —Many spell spell electronic mail e-mail, while some drop the hyphen now.
    —A general principle is that two words forming an adjective before a noun use a hyphen, but two words forming an adjective after a noun do not.
    —full-text electronic article
    —The electronic article was presented in full text.
    —Connects grouped numbers, like a phone number in order to separate them like phone numbers (213-555-1212) or social security numbers (123-45-6789).
    —Indicates breaks within words that wrap at the end of a line.
    —Not used for a range of numbers, like a date range.

    N dash –
    —Joins numbers in a range, such as “1993–99” or “1200–1400 B.C.” or “pages 32–37” or open-ended ranges, like “1934–”.
    —Joins words that describe a range, like “July–October 2010” or Spring–Autumn.
    —Used with institutional names that take the following form:
    University of Wisconsin–Madison
    University of Chicago–based

    M dash —
    —Works better than commas to set apart a unique idea from the main clause of a sentence:
    “Sometimes writing for money—rather than for art or pleasure—is really quite enjoyable.”
    —Separates an inserted thought or clause from the main clause, such as:
    “I can’t believe how pedantic Ken is about writing—I mean, doesn’t he have anything better to do?”
    “Hunter strode into the room—was he mad?—and the family stopped and stared.”
    “Computers make everyday punctuation—for reasons that we’ll discuss later—more precise yet more confusing.”
    —Shows when dialogue has been interrupted:
    “I reached in and pulled the spray can out of my pants—” “In front of the police?”
    -Sets off the sources of quotes:
    “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”
    —Oscar Wilde
    —Can serve as a sort of bullet point for lists.
    —Em dashes also substitute for something missing. For example, in a bibliographic list, rather than repeating the same author over and over again, three consecutive em dashes (also known as a 3 M dash) stand in for the author’s name.
    —In interrupted speech, one or two em dashes may be used: “I wasn’t trying to imply——” “Then just what were you trying to do?”

    Style and usage vary for spaces. Most say not to use a space for the hyphen or the two dashes (M or N), but some say that you use a space for the N dash (but only in cases where most would use the M dash as outlined above). No spaces ever for the M dash.

    Remember, that typewriters only had a hyphen on it, so only typesetters had the luxury of using M or N dashes. Now, however, no one has typewriters and everyone has computers—and if you have a Mac or an iDevice you get all three easily in any program or APP, but if you’re on a Windows laptop you don’t!

    • Justin Pot

      Thank you so much for this comment! It’s basically a better guide than my article. :)

  • Daniel

    I’m not really following this statement :
    “Compose” follow by “—” creates an em dash and “–.” creates an en dash.

    That basically reads: “Compose” followed by {em dash} creates an em dash and “Compose” followed by {en dash} creates an en dash.

    For me, it appears to be: “Compose” followed by “—” (three hyphens) creates an em dash. I haven’t been able to create an en dash using this method – only via the ctrl-shift-u method.

    • Daniel

      Ah, I see. The site is translating three hyphens into an em dash for you. Either way, I’m guessing Compose plus two hyphens for you creates an en dash, not for me though (Centos 6.3).

    • John Reid

      Using the Compose key:

      EM DASH: – – – (three hyphens)
      EN DASH: – – . (three hyphens, full stop)

      Hope that helps!

  • Roman

    “Laptops without physical number pads can occasionally use the “Fn” key and some letter keys”

    All laptops have a row of numbers right below the function key row, just as desktop keyboards do, and usually Fn key doesn’t need to be pressed.

    Also, NONE of your dashes are surrounded with spaces despite your stated preference to have them.

    • Justin Pot

      Those numbers won’t work: you must use the keypad ones. Stupid, but true.

      I stated my preference, and the editors stated theirs by deleting my spaces. They’re wrong, though.

    • Roman

      Wow, you are right – those numbers don’t work. Stupid, indeed.

      Please pass this to your editors: when a dash isn’t surrounded by spaces, the dash appears to connect parts of a complex word, which isn’t what you intended in your article. For example, “characters–especially”, “dash–type”, “keypad–search”. It is the hyphen that shouldn’t have spaces around it in normal sentences, not dash. Please tell the editors that their preference makes it more difficult for the readers to consume the fruits of their editing labor.

  • Kay

    Maybe Mark wasn’t at work that day? “To create you dash…” needed his attention, and there weren’t any spaces surrounding the en dash in the first para of your Conclusion. Thanks for the info – its something that bothers me too. Wish we could all decide on a style. Of course, lots of people just don’t see a problem, and think hyphen is a naughty word.

    • Justin Pot

      Yeah, that’s embarrassing. Try as both I and Mark do to correct all grammatical mistakes some do slip through. As for dashes, I actually don’t know what he thinks…

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.