man dashing across a space

Dashes in MLA Style and Microsoft Word

By Joseph Wallace

The series Microsoft Word and MLA Style shows writers how to use Word to make their essays conform to MLA style guidelines. This post explains how to use dashes in MLA style and Microsoft Word.

Dashes come in two varieties: em dashes and en dashes. Whereas hyphens primarily divide compound words (“a long-standing concern”), dashes divide other kinds of compound structures or indicate breaks in a sentence. They also appear in works-cited lists in MLA publications. But dashes do not appear on standard keyboards. They are special characters. For that reason, it is a good idea to use keyboard shortcuts to insert them in your text. In what follows I provide examples of how the MLA uses dashes and how to access them in Microsoft Word.

Dashes in Your Prose

When you use dashes in your prose, they’re typically em dashes. They’re called that because they’re the width of the letter m. Em dashes—like the ones used in this sentence—separate one portion of the sentence from another. They work like parentheses. MLA style uses en dashes—so called because they are the length of the letter n—in prose after single compound adjectives that are also proper nouns. For example, the phrase “the Academy Award–winning actress” needs an en dash, not a hyphen. Our related post on hyphens and en dashes explains how we use them.

Dashes in the Works-Cited List

In student writing, there is no need to use em and en dashes in the works-cited list. But MLA publications use dashes to enhance readability. Our publications require em dashes in the works-cited list when there are two or more works by a single author. The following provides an example:

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. Oxford UP, 2012.

———. Ulysses. Random House, 1961.

Three em dashes appear in place of the author before the second work and all subsequent works.

MLA publications use en dashes in the works-cited list to separate numbers in numerical ranges. The following provides an example, in the page range at the end of the entry:

Barchas, Janine. “Sarah Fielding’s Dashing Style and Eighteenth-Century Print Culture.” ELH, vol. 63, no. 3, 1996, pp. 633–56.

Using Shortcuts in Microsoft Word

The instructions below will work for most versions of Word on either a PC or a Mac. If they don’t work for you, consult Microsoft’s Web site.

Word has built-in shortcuts for dashes. On a PC, it’s easiest to press Ctrl+- (that’s Ctrl plus the minus sign) for an en dash and Alt+Ctrl+- (that’s Alt plus Ctrl plus the minus sign) for an em dash. Or you could use Alt codes: hold down the Alt key and press 0150 for an en dash and 0151 for an em dash. Note that you cannot use the number keys or minus sign at the top of the keyboard to insert dashes using the built-in shortcuts or Alt codes on a PC; you must use the numerical keypad with Num Lock turned on, which you can’t do on a laptop. If you’re using a laptop, you’ll probably want to create your own shortcuts, which I explain how to do below. On a Mac, the built-in shortcut for en dashes is Option+- (that’s the Option key plus the hyphen key), and the shortcut for em dashes is Option+Shift+- (Option, Shift, then the hyphen key).

Users may want to create their own shortcuts for dashes. If you are using Word on a PC, click the following tabs in order: File > Options > Customize Ribbon. At the bottom of the Customize Ribbon box, you should see Keyboard Shortcuts. Click the box marked “Customize.” In the text window labeled “Categories,” scroll all the way to the bottom. Select Common Symbols. In the text window on the right, you will see Em Dash and En Dash. If you select one, you can see if a key combination has already been assigned to it in the window labeled “Current keys.” If one has not, or if you want to change the current keys, enter a combination of keys in the box under “Press new shortcut key.” I have set up my version of Word so that Ctrl+1 creates an em dash and Ctrl+2 creates an en dash.

If you are using Word on a Mac, click Insert  > Symbols > Advanced Symbol > Special Characters. You will see a list of special characters, including the dashes, and an option to assign keyboard shortcuts.

On most versions of Word, AutoCorrect creates dashes automatically in some cases. If I type a word, two hyphens, and another word and then press space, Word converts the hyphens to an em dash. If I type a word, press space, enter a hyphen, press space, enter another word, and press space one more time, Word converts the hyphen to an en dash. Our related post on AutoCorrect explains how to adjust its settings.

Published 24 June 2020

7 comments on “Dashes in MLA Style and Microsoft Word

  1. The advice here for Mac users is doing it the hard way. You don’t need to CREATE shortcuts to get em-dashes and en-dashes in Word for Mac because they already exist: Option-dash gives you an en-dash: –. Option-shift-dash gives you an em-dash: —.
    I suggest that you replace the more complicated advice given above with these simple notes on the existing shortcuts in Word for Mac.

    • Thanks for your comment and for letting me know about the default shortcut. Some users might want to create even simpler shortcuts, which is why I provided instructions. I prefer Ctrl+1 for em dashes because I use them so often!

  2. So, are students meant to use en and em dashes when it comes to the Works Cited list or not? Is it preferable or not?

    Also, if en dashes are used for page numbers in the Works Cited list, are en dashes then required throughout the thesis’ body? (Consistency and all.)

    • Thanks for the question. Dashes are optional in student writing. But if you use en dashes in the works-cited list, it’s best to be consistent and also use them in the body of your essay.

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