5 Ways to Create an Em Dash

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by C.K. MacLeod

Updated on January 14, 2017.

I have all-in-one laptop that weighs the same as a tablet. It’s a marvel of a machine except for one thing: because it doesn’t have a numeric keypad (less keyboard = better portability), I cannot create em dashes (—) and en dashes (–) in my usual way.

(You know there are three kinds of dashes in written English, right? Use them correctly in your writing and you will impress a copyeditor!)

1. Use built-in keyboard shortcuts.

On a regular-size keyboard with a number keypad, I can use keyboard shortcuts to create em dashes and en dashes:

  • Em dash (—): Alt+0151
  • En dash (–): Alt+0150

In Microsoft Word:

  • Em dash (—): Alt+Ctrl+ - (minus)
  • En dash (–): Ctrl + - (minus)

Mac users use these shortcuts:*

  • Em dash (—): Shift-Alt-hyphen or Command + M
  • En dash (–): Alt-hyphen

My usual keyboard shortcuts don’t work on my portable laptop, though. Here are few workarounds:

2. Plug in a full-size external keyboard or keypad.

This option will only be appealing to you if you tend to use your laptop like a desktop.

For editing documents, I like to plug my laptop into a massive monitor and attach a wireless mouse and full-size keyboard, complete with a number keypad.

Alternatively, you can plug in a portable USB number keypad and use your laptop keyboard and touchpad. With this set-up, there are no problems creating em and en dashes in my usual way—using Alt codes.

But what if you prefer to use your laptop on-the-go, as it’s intended? Read on…

3. Use Unicode character codes.

Most compact PC laptop keyboards won’t allow you to use Alt codes to create em dashes and en dashes, but you can use Unicode character codes in most instances:

  • Em dash: 2014+Alt+x
  • En dash: 2013+Alt+x

You can look up other Unicode character codes here.

Note: Keyboard shortcuts using Unicode character codes don’t work in Scrivener, Gmail, or Google docs. For these programs, try one of the options that follow.

4. Use your word processor’s built-in autocorrect function.

In Google Docs, if you type two hyphens followed by a space, those two hyphens will be changed to an em dash. Out of the box, Word and Scrivener will do the same.

There isn’t an autocorrect option out of the box for an en dash, though. So, you can try this:

In Word 2010 and up, go to Tools, Options, Proofing, and click on the AutoCorrect Options button.

Select the AutoCorrect tab and add these keyboard shortcuts:

  • Replace: .em  With: —
  • Replace .en  With: –

Now each time you type .em (dot em) in Microsoft Word, it will be replaced by an em dash, and .en will give you an en dash.

If you want to do the same in Scrivener, go to Tool, Options, Corrections, Edit Substitutions. In Google Docs, go to Tools, Preferences.

5. Use your operating system’s character map.

Using you operating system’s search function, type in “character map.” A grid with symbols will pop up, and you can select the em dash or en dash and copy and paste it into your document. In Scrivener, you can access your operating system’s character map by going to Edit, Character Map. In Word 2010 and up, you’ll need to go to Insert, Symbol. In Google Docs, go to Insert, Special Characters.

Be Efficient

There are many ways to create em dashes and en dashes on your laptop. If your only option is to use the character map (the least efficient option), consider inserting two hyphens for em dashes in your document for now. You can then use your word processor’s find and replace function to replace the hyphens with the correct symbol later.

Do you use a Mac? Let us know how you insert em dashes and en dashes into your writing in the comments section below.

*Thanks to John Espirian and Geri J. for suggesting keyboard shortcuts for Mac users.

Image by Dennis Skley

24 thoughts on “5 Ways to Create an Em Dash”

      1. Sarah,
        It's easy on many PCs, too (Ctrl + Shift + -). Just not on some of the super compact ones. This is more of a hardware problem, I think.
        Best,
        C.K.

    1. I have a Mac but no Alt key. I've never seen an Alt key on a Mac. What we have is the Option key and using Shift+Option+hyphen gives me an em dash—like this.

      1. Lindig,
        You're quite right. I'm a PC user, so if you're a Mac User and you see any instruction on this blog involving an Alt key, just sub in the Option key.
        Best,
        C.K.

  1. I have used a Mac for years. For the em dash, I use Command-M . For the en dash I use the two hyphens and then go back and search and replace.

  2. On my Mac, command-m sends the file to the dock. It probably depends on which operating system you're using. Mine is Yosemite. I didn't know about alt-shift, (on the Mac it's option-shift, same key, different name), so thanks.

    1. Ah. So if you're using a Mac, keyboard shortcuts may be different, depending on your operating system. Thanks for pointing that out!

  3. I have a weird idea, but maybe it some of you will find it useful. How about placing an en-dash in your default e-mail signature? It could just be a separator, as in:
    –—
    Best Regards
    Name Last Name

    The separator is made up of one em dash and one en dash. It might be useful if you're using Gmail a lot and don't have a laptop with a numeric keyboard.
    Thanks for a great article!

    1. Oh! I think I see where you're going with this, Mariusz. Do you mean that if these dashes are separators in your signature, they'll always be available for copying if you need them? Now that's creative. Thanks for sharing!

  4. My old work laptop had a key devoted to the minus sign, which I would use to access the en-/em-dash shortcut. Although space constraints on my new, smaller keyboard meant eliminating the minus sign key, they kept its functionality by merging it into the regular keyboard via the Function (Fn) key.

    After reading this post and doing some playing around, I found the shortcuts: Ctrl-Fn-colon for an en-dash, Alt-Ctrl-Fn-colon for an em-dash.

    That may not work for you, but it might be worth looking around on your keyboard and seeing what they offer you in terms of creating a minus sign. If you can find that, you may find your own en- and em-dash shortcuts.

    1. Thanks for sharing these tips, Jim! They don't work on my laptop, but that doesn't mean that they won't work on others'. 🙂

    1. You can most certainly do that, and people will know what you mean. 🙂 If you're producing an ebook, however, those two hyphens could get separated. That may or may not be an issue for your readers. It'll be interesting to see which of these standard print conventions will stand the test of time...

  5. My small PC laptop also does not carry a number pad. I found that, in MS Word, pressing Alt and Shift and the hyphen key will produce an em dash. Pressing Alt and Ctr and the hyphen key will produce an en dash.

    Before discovering this, I used to type in a double dash -- and then open up the Replace function, search for the double dash in the first box (what you want to replace), then move to the second box (what you want inserted instead), then hit "Special" (at the bottom of the page), and insert "Em dash" or "En dash," depending on what I wanted.

    Since I haven't found a quick way outside of MS Word to insert the em dash, I usually open up a blank MS Word page and insert it there, then cut and paste it to the other program where I need it.

  6. thank you so much.. I didn't know hot to do em dash until now. I would've used an en dash on my essay if I didn't saw your site 🙂

  7. So, basically, there's no way of getting an en dash, in general, on a (very normal) PC laptop, except for finding it somewhere and then copy-pasting it, right?

    In this comment for example (which I'm not writing in Scrivener, Word or Google Docs, I'm just using the field this site has set up for me), there's no way for me to actually WRITE the en dash. I'm on a PC laptop without a numerical keypad. I HAVE to find it, anywhere, then copy it, then paste it into this field, like this: –. Hooray.

    My (actual) method of "choice" is this:
    1. Shit, I need an en dash, fuck fuck fuck,
    (2. I go to Google Chrome if I'm not there already,)
    3. I open a new tab in Google Chrome via ctrl+t, which allows me to type a search instantly,
    4. and I then type "en dash",
    5. and I then mark and copy the en dash that appears under result number one,
    6. I then paste it into my search field (the address bar) in Google Chrome to remove all formatting (I need to make sure nothing fucks up anything),
    7. and then copy THAT no-format en dash,
    8. and THEN I finally paste it where I need it (be it another tab in Google Chrome or elsewhere which doesn't allow shortcuts).

    I just can't understand why Windows won't allow me to choose whichever shortcut I want myself (which is available, that is). If I want alt+shift+backspace+enter+the other shift+pg up to mean 'en dash', why can't I just do that...? It almost makes me want to change to a Mac once my PC caves in. The computer I now use is actually designed FOR grammatical errors, which I find absurd.

    On my girlfriend's Mac I've made the shortcut alt+hyphen, easy. Works ANYWHERE in her operating system. It makes me more angry than happy for her sake...

    1. Ray,
      I hear you. The problem seems to occur on more compact laptops without keypads. It's mostly a hardware problem. You're right: Windows does come with built-in shortcut keys for various functions, but you can change those.

      If I have to create an em dash on my compact laptop, and I'm not working in software that automatically translates two dashes into an em dash (Word, Scrivener, and Google Docs will do this), I'll do one of two things: insert the two dashes in place of an em dash and do a find and replace later, or plug in an external keyboard that will allow me to use Alt codes.

      It's not elegant, but it is workable.
      Best,
      C.K.

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