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Non-breaking Em Dashes

Word allows you to enter many different typographical symbols, among them en dashes and em dashes. Exactly how you create these types of dashes has been covered in other issues of WordTips. However, it should be noted that an em dash may not work exactly as you want it to. Normally an em dash is placed in a document between two words. In other words, there are typically no spaces around an em dash. (An en dash may be a different story that we won't get into in this tip.)

For those readers who are editors and/or typographers, a quick side-trip may be in order here. (For those who don't fall into this category, please excuse this tangent, but I know from sad experience that debating punctuation can be a somewhat religious experience.) Some of you may take exception to the claim of no surrounding spaces. Just so you know, I am relying on The Chicago Manual of Style for my reference here. It indicates that a space may follow or precede (but not follow and precede) a 2-em dash to indicate missing letters, or spaces can appear on both sides of a 3-em dash to indicate missing words. Both of those instances are beyond the scope of this tip; here we are talking about single em dashes.

Meanwhile, back in Word-land, an em dash is always sticky to the word it follows. Thus, in the phrase "John—the original author—was flabbergasted," the em dashes will always stay with the words John and author as the end of a line is reached. In this way, an em dash can appear as the last character on a line, but never as the first character on a line.

If you want your em dashes to be sticky on both ends (sort of like a very long non-breaking hyphen), then you may be out of luck. Many people get around the problem by putting two, three, or even four non-breaking hyphens in a row to simulate a non-breaking em dash. The problem with this solution is that the non-breaking hyphens end up looking like a dashed line, not a solid em dash. You can minimize or virtually eliminate the natural spaces between the non-breaking hyphens by following these steps:

  1. Select the non-breaking hyphens. (This technique works best if you use four non-breaking hyphens.)
  2. Choose Font from the Format menu. Word displays the Font dialog box.
  3. Make sure the Character Spacing tab is selected. (See Figure 1.)
  4. Figure 1. The Character Spacing tab of the Font dialog box.

  5. Using the Spacing drop-down list, choose Condensed. The By field to the right of the Spacing drop-down list should change to 1 pt.
  6. Change the By field to 1.2 pt. (You may have to play with this figure based on the font you are using.)
  7. Click on OK.

The result is four characters (all non-breaking hyphens) that appear as a single character since they basically overprint each other just a bit. You can also take these four characters and assign them to an AutoText or AutoCorrect entry so they will be easy to use in the future.

You can also take a little different approach to the issue: You can stretch characters instead of condensing spacing. If you want to take this approach, simply insert a single non-breaking hyphen between your words, then follow these steps:

  1. Select the single non-breaking hyphen.
  2. Choose Font from the Format menu. Word displays the Font dialog box.
  3. Make sure the Character Spacing tab is selected.
  4. Using the Scale drop-down list, choose a high value, such as 200% to 400%. (You may have to play with this figure based on the font you are using.)
  5. Click on OK.

Finally, you can insert a symbol to use instead of the regular em dash used by Word. This symbol will be sticky on both ends, unlike the em dash. Follow these steps:

  1. Position the insertion point where you want the non-breaking em dash.
  2. Choose Symbol from the Insert menu. Word displays the Symbol dialog box. (See Figure 2.)
  3. Figure 2. The Symbol dialog box.

  4. Using the Font drop down list, choose Normal Text.
  5. Using the Subset drop-down list, choose General Punctuation. The character selected should be the en dash.
  6. Press the Right Arrow key once. The character selected should be the em dash.
  7. Press the Right Arrow key on e more time. This is the character you want.
  8. Click Insert.
  9. Click Cancel.

With all these potential solutions, there is one caveat of which you should be aware. The spelling and grammar checkers in Word knows how to handle the regular em dash; they don't know how to handle these workarounds. Thus, don't be surprised if one of the checkers treats the word-dash-word combination as a single word and flags it as incorrect. (Just a little warning so you don't rely on Word to catch your spelling errors in this instance.)

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (482) applies to Microsoft Word 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003.

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Comments for this tip:

malcolm    01 Apr 2015, 06:24
The unicode for en-dash is 2014; it is not sticky at the trailing edge but is usually typed with a space eadh side. The 2212 code is for the minus sign; it is nonsticky at the trailing edge. (An equals sign,=, is sticky at both ends when set without spaces. as in 12-11=1.)
Sheryl    29 Mar 2015, 13:04
I'm quoting Bible verses and wanted the em dash to stick to the verse reference and not to the verse itself. The horizontal bar is a perfectly elegant solution. (I'd always wondered what that thing was for!) Thanks for a great tip!
Ulisses Amaral    20 Oct 2013, 11:22
Hi guys.

I've found a way which works quite well for me. That's using macro. Using MS-Word 2007

1) Open the developer tab
2) click on "record macro"
3) on "macro name" I've written "endash". Any name will do, that's just to be able to easily find all the macros I'm using.
4)click on "keyboard"
5)press Ctrl+Shift+Num- in order to assign the shortcut you will be using for the en dash.
6) click on "assign"
7) click on close
8) Now you're recording the macro to be used later so anything you do it'll be assign to the shortcut you've just created.
9) type "2212" (without the quotation marks) and press alt+x (this will create the unicode en dash (actually it is a little bit higher in positioning, but it's the best I could find)
10) select the unicode endash (using the Shift+left arrow on keyboard, never the mouse).
11) copy the unicode en dash (Ctrl+C)
12) paste the unicode en dash WITHOUT FORMATING. That's done:
12.1 click on the Home tab
12.2 click on the arrow just below the Paste option on the upper-left hand side of the screen
12.3 click on paste special
12.4 click on Unformatted Text
12.5 click on OK
13) Go back the Developer Tab and click on stop recording

Cheers from Brazil
William    22 Jul 2013, 10:47
Very useful comment, Malcom.

You're right. American writers and editors) do commonly use the EM-dash as a syntactic separator ―sometimes in place of comma(s) and sometimes in place if a semi-colon― to draw special attention to a phrase.

In such cases, I find it useful to "stick" the EM-dashes to left and right of the nominal or dependent phrase that would otherwise be set off by two commas (illustrated above). That way, the EM-dash doesn't get stranded from the text it's meant to emphasize.
malcolm    20 Jul 2013, 05:26
Or you could use the typographically identical horizontal bar! The em-rule, which is sticky at the leading edge only, is Unicode 2014; the bar, which is sticky at BOTH ends, is 2015. So you just type 2015 (or temporary-space+2015 if the preceding word ends in a,b,c,d,e, or f, which are also unicode numerals) followed by Alt-x. Word parses the code into a bar. (Delete any temporary space.)
    More generaly, what's with this American love of the em-rule? It cuts down the number of formatting (variable width) spaces in a line and can make for very gappy text and "rivers" of white running down the page. The space-enrule-space used by the rest of the world is much more flexible. Sticky emrules should be reserved for from-to designation, as in:
 "the Manhattan―-Greenport jitney"
but not for:
"The Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race" - which is not rowed From Oxford To Cambridge!

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