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Tuesday, September 26th, 2000 | 2 comments

If you have ever looked closely at one of the P22 key charts you will notice several dashes, well, six to be exact. These dashes are the hyphen, minus sign, en dash, em dash, macron and underscore. Don't stop reading! These dashes are found in every font because each has a specific typographic and grammatical use, but you'll probably need to use only three of them.

The Hyphen -
The hyphen is the shortest dash visually. It is the most widely misused dash because people employ it for all sorts of purposes, although it is meant only for hyphenating words or creating line breaks.

The Minus Sign –
The minus sign is slightly longer than the hyphen, usually the same length as the en dash. Obviously one uses the hyphen in mathematical formulas and equations. The minus sign is usually designed to be the same length as the plus and equals signs. In most fonts these are usually monospaced along with the numbers for ease when being used in tabular formats.

The En Dash –
The en dash gets its name because it is approximately the width of the capital N in any particular font. Use the en dash when indicating duration, such as when you could substitute the word "to." You can set the en dash with a little space on either side if you wish, but do not use a full space:
June–July 1967
1:00–2:00 p.m.
For ages 3–5
pp. 38–55

You would also use an en dash when you have a compound adjective, one part of which consists of two words or a hyphenated word:
New York–London flight
pre–World War II period
high-priority–high-pressure tasks

The Em Dash —
As a rule, the em dash is twice as long as the en dash. This dash is the length if the capital M in any particular font. The em dash is used in much the way a colon or set of parentheses is used: it can show an abrupt change in thought or be used where a period is too strong and a comma too weak. An em dash should never be used with spaces on either side although, clearly, many people are unaware of this rule.

The Macron ¯
The Macron is a diacritic used to mark long vowels in many languages such as Latvian, Lithuanian, Hausa and Fijian, among others. The macron is also necessary for romanized Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese and Sanskrit. This dash, if you can call it a dash, is usually placed in the font to hang above a lower case letter. If you ever need to use a macron, you may need to do some special kerning and baseline shifting to position it correctly.

The Underscore (or Lowline) _
The underscore is another diacritic required for many African and Native American languages. It is also useful for some purposes in English and is becoming fairly common in e-mail addresses. The underscore is sometimes used as an underdot in romanized Arabic and Hebrew. You may never have a need to use this dash for underlining because most text applications have a built-in underscore feature.

by James Greishaber


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