Even though the difference between the en dash and the em dash might be only a millimeter, confusing them in your writing can be a big problem. We’ve written before about en dashes and em dashes, but today’s post is about how these punctuation marks are used differently in US and UK English.
When to Use an En Dash
The en dash is used in all English dialects in the following four ways:
In all of these uses, the en dash is used without spaces.
The En Dash in UK English
If you’re writing for UK readers, you can also use pairs of spaced en dashes instead of parentheses:
The most popular Beatles song – “Hey Jude” – was in the charts for 19 weeks.
Moreover, UK English allows for a spaced en dash to be used like a colon to introduce new information:
Find this useful?
Subscribe to our newsletter and get writing tips from our editors straight to your inbox.
“Hey Jude” is over seven minutes long – 40% of it is “na na na!”
When to Use an Em Dash
Em dashes are used in all English dialects to indicate interrupted speech. You can use one when somebody suddenly stops talking like this:
“Run! It’s about to explo—”
An em dash can also be used to show that one speaker is talking over another:
“I thought you were de—”
“I’ll explain later. Let’s go!”
The Em Dash in US English
When you’re writing for an American audience, you can use em dashes as an alternative to parentheses:
I named my pets—Loki, Thor, and Wanda—after my favorite Marvel characters.
When you use em dashes instead of parentheses (or brackets) like this, your writing is usually more dramatic. Therefore, you should avoid using em dashes this way in academic writing. For essays, dissertations, and other formal writing, use brackets and colons to separate information from the main text.
Usually, you don’t need to put spaces around em dashes, but you should check your style guide to be sure. For example, the Associated Press style book, which is often used in magazine publishing, says that there should be a space on both sides of an em dash.
Summary: En Dashes and Em Dashes in US and UK English
As we’ve seen, en dashes—the width of an n—and em dashes—the width of an m—are used in much the same way on both sides of the pond. The main difference is that US English uses em dashes—usually without spaces—in place of parentheses, while UK English prefers the shorter en dash – with a space either side – for the same purpose.
You may have noticed that neither en nor em dashes can be found on a regular QWERTY keyboard. Check out this post on how to type these dashes with Windows and Mac devices.
If you’d like a punctuation pro to check your work for dodgy dashes, as well as any other writing errors, our proofreaders are here to help. You can check out our service with a 500-word free trial today.