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Style Manual

Dashes

Dashes show a relationship. En dashes for spans or ranges are less accessible for users than a phrase. Use spaced en dashes to set off non-essential information in sentences.

Use the correct symbols for en dash and minus sign

En dashes are half the width of the font height. Use them as a type of punctuation.

Don’t use an en dash instead of a minus sign. Screen readers will read dashes as dashes, not as the minus sign.

In Unicode, the en dash is U+2013.

To make sure screen readers read the minus sign, use the mathematical symbol for minus. In Unicode, this is U+2212.

Don’t confuse the dash or the minus symbol for a hyphen.

Use phrases instead of en dashes for most spans and ranges of numbers

En dashes show a span or range when used with numerals, such as a range of values or a financial year. 

Avoid this use in most text.

Dashes can affect readability unless a user changes default settings (punctuation verbosity settings). By default, screen readers won’t generally read out dashes. This can affect people’s ability to quickly understand ranges and spans. 

That is why, in general text, it’s better to use phrases for most spans and ranges of numbers. You can use en dashes in technical content, particularly if it’s got a lot of specific spans and ranges of numbers. 

Spans and ranges in general text

Avoid using en dashes for spans in paragraph text and headings. Instead, use the phrases:

  • ‘from’ paired with ‘to’ – for example, ‘from 57 to 65 years’
  • ‘between’ paired with ‘and’ – for example, ‘between Monday and Friday’.

Never mix ‘from’ or ‘between’ with an en dash.

Correct

She worked from 10 to 28 January.

Annual rainfall between 2017 and 2019 was lower than the long-term average.

Incorrect

She worked from 1028 January.

Annual rainfall between 20172019 was lower than the long-term average.

The exceptions to this general rule are date ranges for:

  • financial years
  • terms of office
  • lifespan (birth and death).

Date ranges in titles and headings should follow the general rule, except when:

  • it would push the character count over 70 characters (including spaces)
  • the dash is part of an existing heading or title that you are citing as a reference.

Financial years

For financial years, use four digits for the first number and only two digits for the second. Join them with an unspaced en dash. This will not create any issue for users who rely on screen readers.

Example

The 2019–20 budget [The financial year starting in July 2019 and finishing in June 2020]

For financial years that cross centuries, use four digits on either side of the en dash.

Example

The 1999–2000 budget [The financial year starting in July 1999 and finishing in June 2000]

Terms of office

A person’s term of office usually appears in parentheses after the person’s name. Always use four digits for both dates, joined by an unspaced en dash.

Like this

Australia’s prime minister at the start of the Depression was James Scullin (1929–1932).

Not this

Australia’s prime minister at the start of the Depression was James Scullin (1929–32).

Dates of a person’s birth and death

Dates of birth and death usually appear in parentheses after the person’s name. Always use four digits for both dates, joined by an unspaced en dash.

Write this

Caroline Chisholm (1808–1877)

Not this

Caroline Chisholm (1808–77)

Date ranges in titles and headings

Titles for strategies and reports often include date ranges. You might also need to use them in headings.

It’s better to use phrases, unless that would push the character count above 70 characters for the full title. You can use en dashes for date ranges in those cases.

Use four digits for the first number and two digits for the second number if both numbers are in the same century. If you cross the century, use the full number on both sides.

Example

The diversity strategy 2020–25

The Lake Eyre basin plan 1999–2004

Reproduce titles as they appear, including dashes, if you are citing them as a reference.

Spans and ranges in technical content

In technical content where there are many numbers, you can use en dashes for number, date and page ranges. Don’t combine en dashes with ‘from’ or ‘to’ in the ranges. 

Don’t use spaces either side of these en dashes if they include a numeral on each side.

Example

There were 25–30 head of cattle in quarantine in June and 50–60 in July. [Number range]

Air quality declined during the 2003–2006 reporting period. [Date range]

This same result was reported in Smith and Jones (2020:5–15). [Page range]

Join nouns with en dashes to show equal relationships

Use en dashes between two nouns that both retain their original meaning. These are called ‘coordinate nouns’.

When describing something, coordinate nouns can function as adjectives.

Example

The Murray–Darling Basin [The Murray River and the Darling River combine to form the basin river system.]

A Sydney–Melbourne flight [Sydney and Melbourne combine to form a single travel route.]

If you used a hyphen instead, you create a compound noun. These cannot stand in for coordinate nouns.

Example

student-teacher [A compound noun, meaning a teacher who is also a student, uses a hyphen.]

student–teacher ratio [A coordinate noun, describing the ratio of students to teachers, uses an en dash.]

If one part of a coordinate noun is made up of more than one word, use a space either side of the en dash. Otherwise, do not include spaces around en dashes for coordinate nouns.

Example

Australia ­– New Zealand relations [The relationship is between Australia and New Zealand, not ‘Australia’ and ‘New’.]

Rewrite to avoid joining prefixes with an en dash

A hyphen normally attaches a prefix to an adjectival phrase. An en dash is correct in some cases, not a hyphen.

If the phrase is not hyphenated, such as in a proper adjectival phrase, you can use an en dash between the prefix and the first word.

The capitalisation of the proper adjectival phrase and the en dash show that the prefix applies to all the words.

Example

pre–Cold War policies

In these cases, if you can, reword the phrase so that it doesn’t include the prefix.

Example

policies from before the Cold War

Space en dashes in sentences to set off non-essential information

Spaced en dashes create a pause in a sentence to add extra meaning, similar to commas and brackets.

Use them rarely to use them effectively – for example, to draw attention to a new and important detail for your main idea. As a rule, don’t make your sentences complex or long

En dashes inside a sentence

Spaced en dashes draw attention because they aren’t as common as other punctuation marks. They help some people scan content by showing that information is non-essential or parenthetical.

Spaced en dashes can separate a clarification, an interruption, a correction, a short list or a summary from the rest of the text.

Always space punctuating en dashes with a single space on either side of the dash. Spaces allow automatic line breaks in front of or after the dash. 

Often, you need a pair of en dashes.

Example

Three rivers – the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee – were discussed in the report.

If the parenthetical information is at the beginning or end of the sentence, you can use one dash.

Example

There was no time to plan – a shortcoming that would later cost millions.

Make sure the rest of the sentence makes sense.

If you remove the content between the en dashes, the rest of the sentence must be a complete sentence.

Example

The allies – the USA, Australia and New Zealand – signed the pact in 1951. 

The allies signed the pact in 1951.

In a sentence with one en dash, one side of the dash must be a complete sentence.

Like this

Solar, wind, hydro and tidal power – all are viable options for renewable energy. [‘All are viable options for renewable energy’ is a complete sentence.]

Not this

Solar, wind, hydro and tidal power – are viable options for renewable energy. [The en dash is not correct here. Neither side of the en dash is a complete sentence.]

Em dashes

Em dashes are the same width as the font height.

Various style guides treat dashes differently. Some styles use unspaced em dashes instead of spaced en dashes.

Both dashes are grammatically correct and can be used to show:

  • additional, amplifying and parenthetical material
  • an abrupt change.

Never use both types of dashes for the same purpose.

Spaced en dashes are Australian government style and should be used in digital content.

Follow this style convention unless a different style reference applies. For example, you might submit a journal article and need to follow the publisher's style, which uses unspaced em dashes. Follow one style: apply it throughout.

In Unicode, the em dash is U+2014.

If you are using em dashes in your content, don’t space them. The spaced em dash creates too great a gap in text. This is a typographical concern and interrupts reading flow.

An unspaced em dash won’t automatically break over a line. This will mean you need to force a line break on either side of the dash. It can either end or begin a line of text.

Use 2 em dashes for some quoted speech and deliberate omissions in text

To show a sudden interruption in quotations and reported speech, use 2 em dashes in a row. The 2 em dashes follow a space.

Ellipses cannot be used for this purpose, as they show the writer has deliberately left out quoted speech. Read related guidance on ellipses.

Example

‘Any more questions before ——’ [The double em dashes show an interruption in a quotation.]

Two em dashes also show when a name or other information is omitted in normal paragraph text. This can be useful when something needs to be withheld for privacy or other legal reasons, for example.

Use a space if the em dashes replace a whole word, but don’t include a space between the dashes and part of the word.

Example

The deed, signed by ——, was legally binding.

S—— signed the deed in 2017.

Release notes

The digital edition revises guidance about use of dashes. 

It recommends using a spaced en dash (as well as commas, colons and brackets) to show additional, amplifying and parenthetical material. The en dash also signifies an abrupt change. The sixth edition recommended an unspaced em dash for these purposes.

The shift from em dash to en dash reflects contemporary writing practice and the new focus on digital content. The en dash is spaced so screen readers don’t mistake an unspaced en for a hyphen.

The digital edition also recommends using words instead of an en rule to link spans of numbers in some cases. Expert advice has informed this change. The change reflects accessibility considerations and style for numbers in contemporary digital content.

The sixth edition recommends a full span of dates for terms of office, consistent with the treatment of dates of birth and death. Although the sixth edition included examples of spans of years, it did not mention terms of office explicitly.

The sixth edition included information about using en dashes in formatting. This is less relevant in a digital environment.

The digital edition departs from the Content Guide, which recommended a spaced em rule. The Content Guide recommended not using an en dash.

About this page

Evidence

Btb Translation Bureau (n.d.) ‘En dash’, Writing tips, Btb Translation Bureau website.

Butcher J, Drake C and Leach M (2006) ‘6.12.1: en rules’, Butcher’s copy-editing: the Cambridge handbook for editors, copy-editors and proofreaders, 4th edn, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Centre for Information Design Research (2016) ‘Number sequences’, The GOV.UK content principles: conventions and research, report prepared by University of Reading, UK Government, accessed 23 January 2020.

Content Design London (2020) ‘Hyphens and dashes’, Content Design London readability guidelines, Content Design London website.

European Commission (2020) ‘2.16: dashes’, English style guide: a handbook for authors and translators in the European Commission, European Commission.

European Commission (2020) ‘3.31: ranges’, English style guide: a handbook for authors and translators in the European Commission, European Commission.

European Commission (2020) ‘6.21: time spans’, English style guide: a handbook for authors and translators in the European Commission, European Commission.

Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) ‘7.6: Dash’, Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.

Oxford University Press (2016) ‘4.11.1: en rule’, New Oxford style manual, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Oxford University Press (2016) ‘11.1.4: number ranges’, New Oxford style manual, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

University of Chicago (2017) ‘6.83: en dash as em dash’, Chicago manual of style, 17th edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

References

Bohman P (20 January 2014) ‘Why don’t screen readers always read what’s on the screen? Part 1: punctuation and typographic symbols’, deque Blog, accessed 21 January 2020.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019) Course notes and exercises: English grammar for writers, editors and policymakers, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Microsoft Corporation (2019) Keyboard shortcuts in Word: insert international characters, Microsoft website, accessed 1 December 2019.

Owen M (2018) How to type accented letters in macOS three different ways, appleinsider website, accessed 4 December 2019.

Oxford University Press (2016) ‘Punctuation’, New Oxford style manual, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stilman A (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.

Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London.

Watson L (8 February 2017) ‘How to create content that works well with screen readers’, Accessibility in Government Blog, accessed 7 January 2020.

WebAIM (2017) Designing for screen reader compatibility, WebAIM website, accessed 23 January 2020.

The Unicode Consortium (2019) Unicode, Unicode website, accessed 2 December 2019.

This page was updated Monday 21 September 2020.

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