En Dashes Clarify Compound Phrasal Adjectives

By Mark Nichol

Some style guides recommend using en dashes in place of hyphens for a wide variety of uses, but The Chicago Manual of Style, the guidebook of record for most American publishing companies, advises a more limited set of applications. According to Chicago style, these sentences would all be written with hyphens, not en dashes:

“He had long flown the San Francisco-Los Angeles run.”

“In 1930, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act went into effect.”

“The final score was 6-5.”

“After discussion, the board voted 6-3 to approve the project.”

“Their father-son rivalry persisted for many years.”

“The Michelson-Morley experiment was a significant milestone on the way to the theory of special relativity.”

What, then, are en dashes for? First, they separate two numbers in a number range (as in the inclusive page numbers in a chapter, or the years of birth and death in a person’s life span). Second, the en dash functions as a superhyphen. It is this second function that this post details.

In a simple phrasal adjective, two single words that, as a temporary compound, modify a noun are often hyphenated: “Her high-handed gesture backfired.” (The hyphen’s function is to eliminate ambiguity, so that the sentence is not understood as referring to a handed gesture that is high.)

But when the first of the two terms in the temporary compound is itself a compound, the greater suspensive strength of the en dash is employed, as in “She wears jam jar–bottom glasses” or “The character’s origins go all the way back to the golden egg–laying magic goose.”

Alternately, these sentences can be styled with hyphens between the three words in each phrasal adjective, as in “She wears jam-jar-bottom glasses” and “The character’s origins go all the way back to the golden-egg-laying magic goose.” This style is used when en dashes are discouraged or not an option, such as online (on Web sites, en dashes, unlike hyphens, require use of a code) or in newspapers, most of which do not use the longer symbol. However, such use of hyphenation does not demonstrate the subtle relationship between the elements of the phrasal adjective.

In addition to linking an open compound to another adjective, an en dash serves to connect a proper noun to a word that indicates resemblance or another relationship:

“The character is part Clint Eastwood–type cowboy.”

“You can see him as a Leonardo da Vinci–like genius.”

“She evolved from being a slick Mata Hari–esque female to a more rounded, tomboyish figure.”

This structure clarifies that type refers, for example, to “Clint Eastwood,” not to “Eastwood” alone.

En dashes connect the concepts in the following phrases: “Academy Award–winning actor,” pre–Industrial Revolution technology,” “ex–vice president,” and “non–United Nations action.” However, when connecting a term to a hyphenated compound, a simple hyphen is used, as in “non-English-speaking visitors” or “non-government-sponsored programs.” Another case in which a hyphen, not an en dash, is employed is “post-9/11,” because the short form of the month-date designation is not considered a compound.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


7 Responses to “En Dashes Clarify Compound Phrasal Adjectives”

  • John

    All well and good, but when I type a dash with no space before or after, my word processor leaves it as a hyphen. If I leave a space before and after the dash it converts it to an en dash. The autocorrect options will replace two dashes with an em dash if no spaces precede or follow them, viz one—two – three-four. Is there a way to tell the software to use an en dash rather than a hyphen when leaving no space?

  • Keri

    @John There must be a keyboard shortcut for it. I am obsessed with em-dashes, so I happen to have that one memorized: Hold down ALT and type 0151, then release ALT. Em-dash! Not sure what the en-dash one is.

  • Paul

    Sounds like a good reason to avoid following Chicago style in these instances! Aside from the ugliness and inconsistency of things like “the San Francisco-Los Angeles run” with a hyphen (the dash here represents something like “to” or “between”, for which, if they were numbers, you’d use an en dash, so not using an en dash here is inconsistent), it adds (or at least, fails to remove) ambiguity (see Lloyd–Jones vs Lloyd-Jones, below); at the same time, the use of an en dash as a hyphen for compound phrases is both too subtle a distinction to be worthwhile, too wide to look nice, and doesn’t actually solve the problem it’s attempting to solve.

    Here’s what the Oxford Style Manual says about the en rule:

    ■ Use the en rule closed up to express the meaning of to or and between words of equal importance. In these cases the words can be reversed in order without altering the meaning. The hyphen must be used when the first word cannot stand on its own:

    Dover–Calais crossing Ali–Foreman match
    on–off switch dose–response curve
    editor–author relationship cost–benefit analysis
    Permian–Carboniferous boundary wave–particle duality

    ■ Use the en rule joined up between the names of joint authors or creators to show that it is not the hyphenated name of one person or modification of one person’s work by another: Einstein–de Sitter universe, Kerr–Sigel hypothesis, Hatch–Slack pathway, Yang–Mills theory. Thus the Lloyd–Jones theory involves two men (en rule), the Lloyd-Jones theory one man (hyphen), and the Lloyd-Jones–Scargill talks two men (hyphen and en-rule). Joint involvement of more than two people may require more than one en rule: Bouguer–Lambert–Beer law, Hand–Schüller–Christian disease.

    ■ Where possible, do not use en rules to link elements comprising more than one word, such as the Winston Churchill–Anthony Eden Government, since the relationship is not immediately clear. Clarifying hyphens are little better (the Winston-Churchill–Anthony-Eden Government); prefer instead a shorter form (the Churchill–Eden Government). Where a shorter form does not exist, as in the New York–New Jersey–Connecticut area, the construction is acceptable, though either a list (the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut area) or abbreviations (the NY–NJ–Conn. area) are acceptable alternatives, and preferable to hyphenation (the New-York–New-Jersey–Connecticut area). Using a solidus (the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area) conveys a different meaning.

    ■ Note Arab–American (of Arabs and Americans, en rule), but Arab-American (of Arab-Americans, hyphen). Compounding forms ending in -o take a hyphen, not an en rule: Sino-Soviet, Franco-German but Chinese–Soviet, French–German.

  • Mark Nichol


    Actually — my mistake — an en dash would be used in “He had long flown the San Francisco-Los Angeles run,” because each element is an open compound. But Chicago would hyphenate “London-Paris run,” because each element is a single word.

  • Peter

    Keri: if 0151 gives you an em dash, then en dash is probably 0150. Those must be a Microsoft-specific encoding, though (i.e., best avoided!); the proper (Unicode) numbers are 8212 and 8211 (2014 and 2013 in hex)

  • Tim

    Hi John,

    I tell my computer to do an en as follows:

    – First, get an en dash on your screen, select it, and then ‘cut’.

    – Then, go to Autocorrect options. Type two unspaced hypens in the LH box, then paste your en dash in the RH box. That way, when you hit the hyphen key twice fast, it will automatically replace it with an en.

    N.B. You can do the same with an em dash — put an en dash followed by a hyphen in the LH box, and past an em dash in the RH box. Hitting the hyphen quickly 3 times should then give you an em dash.

  • Alana Forsyth

    This page is woefully out of date, but Google is still serving it up. I hope people are taking into account how old it is, and I think the author of the website should think about revising it. (See my comment below).

    As of 2014, CMOS 16 says:

    6: Punctuation

    6.78En dash as “to”

    The principal use of the en dash is to connect numbers and, less often, words. With continuing numbers—such as dates, times, and page numbers—it signifies up to and including (or through). For the sake of parallel construction, the word to, never the en dash, should be used if the word from precedes the first element in such a pair; similarly, and, never the en dash, should be used if between precedes the first element.

    The years 1993–2000 were heady ones for the computer literate.
    For documentation and indexing, see chapters 14–16.
    In Genesis 6:13–21 we find God’s instructions to Noah.
    Join us on Thursday, 11:30 a.m.–4:00 p.m., to celebrate the New Year.
    I have blocked out December 2009–March 2010 to complete my manuscript.
    Her articles appeared in Postwar Journal (3 November 1945–4 February 1946).
    She was in college from 1998 to 2002 (not from 1998–2002).

    In other contexts, such as with scores and directions, the en dash signifies, more simply, to.

    The London–Paris train leaves at two o’clock.
    On November 20, 1966, Green Bay defeated Chicago, 13–6.
    The legislature voted 101–13 to adopt the resolution.

    For more on dates and times, see 9.30–37, 9.38–41. For more on number ranges, see 9.60. For the slash, see 6.105.

Leave a comment: