Quick tutorials: what is an en-rule?

iStock_000018482964XSmallIn this new occasional feature, Tips for writers, I’m going to be covering a range of topics drawn from my experience as a book editor and teacher.

First up is a quick tutorial on the use of a punctuation mark, the en-rule—rather a dry subject, I’m sure you’ll agree, but it’s one of those things writers often ask me to explain. So here we go…


There are four types of dash available to writers: hyphens, en-rules, em-rules and 2-em rules. Most people are familiar with hyphens; fewer with the others. Here I’m focusing on the en-rule, but first let’s see what the four look like:

–  hyphen (as in light-hearted, co-worker, south-west)

–  en-rule (as in June–July, pages 6–10, mother–child relationship, Perth–Sydney flight)

—  em-rule (as in There are two main ingredients—lemon and garlic—in that sauce.)

——  2-em rule (as in He started to shout, ‘You’re a crazy——,’ but the gunshot felled him.)

Conventional uses of the en-rule

The en-rule dash often expresses a from/to or between/and relationship, joining:

  • spans of time, distance, figures (i.e. June–July indicates from June to July; pages 6–10 indicates from page 6 to page 10)
  • two entities that retain their separateness (i.e. mother–child relationship indicates a relationship between mother and child; Perth–Sydney flight indicates a flight between Perth and Sydney)

Don’t make the common error of mixing an en-rule with one part of a from/to or between/and pair:

  • not  from June–July (should be from June to July or just July–July)
  • not between Perth–Sydney (should be between Perth and Sydney or just Perth–Sydney)

Other uses of the en-rule

The en-rule is used instead of a hyphen with prefixes when the prefix is attached to more than one word. Compare non-speaking part and non–English speaking part:

  • the hyphen is correct in non-speaking part (the prefix non is attached to one word, speaking)
  • the en-rule is correct in non–English speaking part (the prefix non is attached to two words, English and speaking)

The same reasoning applies to compound adjectives preceding a noun. Compare war-related wound and World War II–related wound:

  • the hyphen is correct in war-related wound (it’s joining war and related)
  • the en-rule is correct in World War II–related wound (it’s joining World War II and related)

New use of the en-rule

In recent years, some publishers have adopted as their house style (particularly for fiction) the used of unspaced en-rules where em-rules have traditionally been used. To use the example given earlier, instead of the conventional use of em-rules in:

  • There are two main ingredients—lemon and garlic—in that sauce.

we have:

  • There are two main ingredients – lemon and garlic – in that sauce.

This is a matter of style rather than correctness, provided it’s used consistently, athough I confess to disliking the flimsy little en-rule being roped in to do this kind of double duty. Give me a typographically muscular unspaced em-rule any day! (Honestly, it takes a nerdish soul to write that sentence.)

0701636475There are other issues involved in the use of en-rules, but this quick tutorial covers the most common and I hope some of you find it helpful. If you need more information, I always recommend the Style manual for authors, editors and printers (6th edition, John Wiley & Sons Australia, 2002), to which this quick tutorial, as well as my knowledge generally on the nuts and bolts of writing, is indebted. This edition of the Style manual might be an old source now but it’s still considered to be a standard text in the Australian publishing context, as were all the editions that came before it.

Happy writing!


Filed under Editing, Tips for writers

17 responses to “Quick tutorials: what is an en-rule?

  1. This tutorial is much-appreciated–and much-needed–by this grammar/punctuation neophyte. Keep ’em coming–please. (See there–I probably completely stuffed-up their usage. ;))

  2. Fascinating Amanda … I knew some of that but not all. My question is, where do you find these different marks on a computer keyboard? I now know how to find all sorts of diacritics on my keyboard (whereas I used to use a little separate application called PopChar) but not the em and en which are different aren’t they in width/length? Silly me, I’ll just go Google!

    Anyhow, as someone who loves thinking about punctuation and had old government Style Manual on my desk at work, I’m like Louise and say keep the posts coming!

    • Oh, that’s a good question, Sue! I can give you the Mac shortcuts: option-shift-hyphen for em-rule; option-hyphen for en-rule. I’m just not sure about Windows: I *think* there might be an auto-correct that changes a double hyphen to an en-rule, but I could be wrong about that.

      The good ol’ Style Manual. I have the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th editions in my office, but that just shows how long I’ve been an editor (read: how old I am) 🙂

      Thanks, Sue.

      • Ah thanks, I hadn’t got around to checking. I have a Mac so that’s easy.

        I’ve had a few editions of the style manual over the years, too, but am retired so only have the 5th here. I’ve often toyed with getting the 6th because I think it updates quite a bit for the electronic world doesn’t it.

      • It does, yes (although it’s not comprehensive). And there are other elements that make it a good book on communications in general.

  3. great idea Amanda – I was never taught the rules (the teaching fad of the time. It made French and Latin classes mysterious); so I’m pleased to have your quick tips!

  4. As a pedant who was taught these things years ago but who now flies by the seat of her pants and uses instinct, I love this post. Yes please, plenty more of these!

  5. marlish glorie

    I cannot thank you enough for this tutorial, Amanda. I loved it, and while not quite an expert yet —on the en rule — I’m getting there bit by slow bit. I’m shocking at English grammar. Never learn it as a child, and as an Adult — guess work. And I know. I know. Shame on me. Looking forward to your next tutorial. 🙂

  6. This is brilliant – thanks Amanda! x

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