Non-breaking Em Dashes

by Allen Wyatt
(last updated October 9, 2021)

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.

Author Bio

Allen Wyatt

With more than 50 non-fiction books and numerous magazine articles to his credit, Allen Wyatt is an internationally recognized author. He is president of Sharon Parq Associates, a computer and publishing services company. ...

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