Pity the poor en-dash. Middle child of the punctuation family. Toiling in the shadow of the em-dash, unknown by some, misunderstood by others. Such a useful tool deserves wider appreciation.
Although its name makes it a close relative of the em-dash, the en-dash in practice is more like an industrial-strength hyphen. Why would you need a stronger hyphen? To make a more inclusive connection.
Before we get all compound-adjective-y, let’s start with numbers. Place hyphens between groups of digits and, voilà! You have a phone number:
The hyphens connect the separate numbers into a single functional unit. Very handy.
With an en-dash, however, the separate numbers become an inclusive range of numbers:
For a complete list, see pages 47–51.
AIGA Design Conference, October 8–10, 2015
George Washington (1732–1799)
Used this way, the en-dash means “through” or “from/to.” (That’s why “from 1–4 PM” is redundant; the en-dash already says from the first number to the second.) Works the same way with words:
Off-season rates apply June–August.
The Boston–Chicago flight was delayed.
Now about those compound adjectives. We’re all familiar with the hyphen as a tool for connecting separate words into a single functional unit, a compound adjective that describes the noun that follows:
A resort-style swimming pool
His devil-may-care attitude
This linking of words into a compound term helps the reader grasp the intended meaning. But look what happens when one of the terms you’re combining is itself a two-word compound, such as “high school”:
Oh, those high school-aged kids.
Those school-aged kids are always getting high. Not what you meant? En-dash to the rescue:
Oh, those high school–aged kids.
Once again, the en-dash more inclusive than the hyphen. It’s the bigger magnet you need to reach and hold both words in that first compound term. Other examples:
A boutique hotel–inspired lobby
A New York–based design firm
I love dark chocolate–covered cherries.
So give the en-dash some love. It’s only trying to help.