Use a Dash for Number Ranges

By Mark Nichol

Which symbol should be used with numbers: a hyphen (-), or an en dash (–)? The question may seem trivial — a dash is a dash, right? — but using the correct symbol aids comprehension, just as commas and semicolons signal distinct grammatical structures, and no one will argue that those two punctuation marks can be used interchangeably.

Hyphens are used to separate groups of numbers, such as in telephone numbers or numbers of financial accounts. But for almost all other cases, the correct punctuation mark is an en dash, which indicates a range or a difference.

A span of years (such as “2009–2012”) or any other time range includes an en dash. (And note that “from 2009–2012” and “between 2009–2012” are incorrect; either use both from and to, or between and and, or neither.) The same treatment is given to a sequence of components, such as a range of chapter or page numbers or amounts (for example, “chapters 1–10” or “250–300 pages”).

A range of monetary amounts — and any other amounts — is also represented this way, as in “Salary range: $75,000–$80,000.” (Note that when expressing a range with very large numbers, to avoid confusion, the first number should not be abbreviated; for example, “$75–$80,000” means “from $75 to $80,000,” not “from $75,000 to $80,000.”)

Two contexts that cause confusion about which dash to use are scores and votes. These are not, technically, ranges, because nothing exists between them, as in the case of “2009–2012,” in which that time span includes 2010 and 2011 as well, and of “chapters 1–10,” which also includes every page between 1 and 10. But The Chicago Manual of Style, reasoning that the symbol between the numbers represents a difference between two values (and that the symbol is pronounced to), has elected to use en dashes for both types of representation.

Therefore, use an en dash to indicate scores for sports or other competitions (for example, “Her team won 6–3” or “They came back from behind to chalk up a 97–92 victory”). Note, however, that when a score does not immediately follow a verb or precede a noun, as in the examples above, it should be set off from the rest of the sentence by one or two commas: “East prevailed over West, 97–92”; “East prevailed over West, 97–92, for the league championship.” Win-loss records should also be formatted with an en dash: “The team went on to earn an 8–4 record.”

Votes are treated the same way: “The city council approved the project with a 5–2 vote.”

Many newspapers and websites follow the style recommended by the Associated Press Stylebook, which is to simply use a hyphen in place of an en dash. That preference presumably dates from the lead-type era, when compositors didn’t want to be bothered about trying to distinguish a – from a – on a piece of metal the size of a watermelon seed. Last time I noticed, however, producing an en dash was a simpler task. Dare to dash.

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20 Responses to “Use a Dash for Number Ranges”

  • Dan Erickson

    I’ve never heard anyone say it’s the “hyphen” between the dates on our gravestone that matters.

  • Lynn

    Thanks for covering the proper use of dashes. I’m so tired of seeing hyphens used incorrectly! I hope next week you will cover em dashes (which should not have a space on either side).

  • Sharon

    So…I may be the only one wondering this, but how does one distinguish between a hyphen and en dash using the computer keyboard? I can’t really see a difference between them in your statement “…trying to distinguish a – from a – on a piece of metal…”

    I get an em dash by typing two dashes together (which get merged by computer software). Otherwise it’s just a single dash/hyphen from the lower-case side of the underscore key.

    Thanks in advance for a clarification!

  • Anne Landon

    An easy way to make an en dash is to use the shortcut menu. An en dash is Alt 0150 (num lock on) and the em dash is Alt 0151.

  • April P.

    Hey… I thought it was called an em dash because it represents the width of a capital letter M.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Thanks.

  • Paul Fein

    Go to “Symbols” and find the en dash, which is the width of the letter “n.” An em dash is the width of the letter “m.” A hyphen has the narrowest width of the three punctuation marks.

  • Mark Nichol

    Lynn:

    Search the site for “em dashes”; there are several posts on the topic, at least one of which explains why sometimes it’s a good idea to frame em dashes with letter spaces.

  • thebluebird11

    Unfortunately, in my work at least, I can’t use an en dash, and I have to use hyphens for everything. The platforms that are used for transcription word-processing are so varied across the industry, with many companies having proprietary platforms, and the I.T. issues surrounding the transfer of information from us to the hospitals are so quirky, that we can’t do it. There are many characters that do not translate across the wires, from simple, everyday ones like the ampersand and the degree sign to less common ones like French and Spanish accent marks, umlauts and beyond. What happens is that a blank space is left in the final document. I’m sure many of you have seen what happens in email when someone uses fancy fonts or accent marks, and the person on the other end is using “plain text,” can’t read the fonts, doesn’t get the smileys and emoticons, etc. I’ve lost count of how many people have asked me, “What is that J at the end of your sentences?”
    So, for me, hyphens are it. But I will keep all this in mind for my personal correspondence, and it’s good to know what is correct.

  • Gary

    Fantastic. I’m forever explaining the use of hyphens and en dashes at work.

    For Windows users, Alt + 0150 is an en dash, Alt + 0151 is an em dash
    For Mac OS users, option + – is an en dash, shift + option + – is an em dash

  • Carole Raschella

    Sharon, you’re not the only one wondering where on the keyboard I would find the em dash. Never been able to figure that one out. Two hyphens stay two hyphens, and the only em dash size is the underline.

    That sounds helpful but I have a Mac, which doesn’t have an Alt. But thank you, Anne. It may give me a clue to figuring it out. After which, I’ll have to reread this post, because since I couldn’t find an em dash, the proper use of the two was moot, so I never knew the diff!

    Geez, I sound like such a digital troglodyte!

  • Mark Nichol

    Carole:

    On a Mac, type Option+Hyphen for an en dash and Shift+Option+Hyphen for an em dash.

  • Sharon ‘Shazz’ Nembhard

    problem is you didn’t say how to achieve one as distinct to the other, you assumed that everyone knew what an en dash is. Had I not read the comments, I wouldn’t know the difference as I’ve used a hyphen all my life. Thanks for the article but please remember people like me next time.

  • Sharon ‘Shazz’ Nembhard

    BTW, I am glad I found your website.

  • Mark Nichol

    Sharon:

    Thanks for your note! I also assumed that people might search on this website for posts about en dashes. I should have included a link to one.

  • AnWulf

    If you use LibreOffice, it automatically changes the – to – . At least it does for me and it must be the default setting. And I agree with Mark that sometimes … for me often … I put spaces on either side of an em dash. It often looks cleaner and makes it easier to read. That’s a style issue not a grammar one.

  • Ian Webster

    But in your article “En Dashes Clarify Compound Phrasal Adjectives” you said that “The final score was 6-5” would, according to Chicago style, be written with hyphens, not en dashes.
    Has Chicago changed its mind on this one?

  • Mark Nichol

    Good catch — I had noticed that, too. (It’s based on my misunderstanding of Chicago style — I had not realized when I wrote the other post that the manual recommends en dashes for scores and votes.) I’m going to ask the webmaster to update that post.

  • margaret

    THe other place to use an en-dash is to substitute for the implied word “and” in compound nouns.

    Italian-American relations (en-dash) is diplomacy between Italy AND America
    Italian-American relations (hyphen) are your American family members whose ancestry is Italian

  • Mark

    It is perfectly acceptable by the vast majority of publishers to use ‘from and a hyphenated range using n-dash’, i.e. from 1999–2014, as the n-dash is understood to mean ‘to’. However, for this same reason, between 1999–2014 would not be accept able, as the n-dash does not represent ‘and’.

  • Christine

    How should I write a span of time beginning in the a.m. and ending in the p.m.? Should I take out the spaces like this: 8:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.? It looks weird to me. I feel like it should be 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. Or should I drop the a.m. and write is as 8:00-2:00 p.m.?

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