Should I use -- or --- to stand in for — ? I've seen people use double hyphen minus, but some apparently use triple. It could be nice to use triple, since then you can reserve double to stand in for en dash.

P.S. I know that em dash can be typed directly on most keyboards.

  • 1
    What will you be doing with the document that makes you want to represent an em dash with characters other than an em dash? Jan 31, 2016 at 20:44
  • @DaleHartleyEmery a good question that I should have answered when you asked it. There are a few reasons. One is that I might not always be able to use non-US-ASCII characters, and also that I don't always trust cross-platform character encoding. So then I use a ASCII sequence to stand in for it. Another is that it is often easier to type, and can then be transformed to a proper em-dash later (for example, TeX does this). Another is that so that it is easier to distinguish it when using monospace font. Jul 17, 2016 at 19:01

4 Answers 4


It depends on what you're doing with the text. In some cases, a double hyphen with surrounding spaces will be automatically converted to a dash, but that might not work with a triple hyphen. If you must enter text in typewriter style, I'd suggest using space and a double-hyphen for a dash.

It is much clearer, however, to use the correct characters, and with the widespread use of UTF-8, these should print correctly on most platforms.

In typography, a dash can be represented either as an en-dash surrounded by a space on each side – like this – or as an em-dash character with no spaces—like this. The en-dash with spaces is sometimes better behaved at line breaks, but the em-dash is arguably more correct. The en-dash is traditionally used mostly for number ranges (eg, 100–114).

These characters can be easily inserted on a Mac keyboard (Option-hyphen and Shift-Option-hyphen). It's more awkward on Windows (Alt-0150 and Alt-0151), but there are many ways to remap the keyboard or use a program substitute other keystrokes for dashes. (AutoHotKey is very good and free.)

  • Yes, use the correct characters. Anything but the correct characters is a bug that you are intentionally putting in your manuscript. You will almost certainly see a final version of the work with “--” in there at least once or more. It is not hard to either learn to type the handful of characters that are not on the computer keyboard like em/en-dash, real quotes, real apostrophe or else use autotext substitution and produce a clean UTF-8 manuscript. Feb 3, 2016 at 14:23
  • I believe en-dash-with-spaces vs em-dash-without-spaces argument is also one of those UK/US things. Two nations divided by a common language etc.
    – evilsoup
    Dec 7, 2016 at 23:04

Use a double. Before I went to writing camp, I never even knew of the different types of dashes. But when I was there, I learned to use a double dash for em dashes. Congrats on knowing this type of stuff! Because not everyone knows... Good luck!

  • Maybe true when you went to writing camp, but no longer true today. Now we just type the em-dash. Feb 3, 2016 at 14:24
  • Thanks for clearing that up. I must still be in writing camp. Feb 3, 2016 at 15:00

A double dash would be most correct. In fact some word processors will automatically change a double dash into an em dash.


I worked as senior technical editor for 16 years for three major telecom companies (all based outside the U.S.) that had adopted English as their corporate language for all documentation; all the writers wrote in English. I always made a point of showing the writers how to enter the correct punctuation characters. Since typewriters were not an issue, we never used two or three hyphens in place of an en or em dash. Since the en dash is almost always used to show a range of numbers or connect non-hyphenated terminology, an en dash would never replace the em dash. Because there are many technical terms that are hyphenated, we all agreed that a space before and after the em dash clearly distinguished from hyphens in general and tended to increase readability.

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