Dashes and Hyphens: What to Watch For Wednesday #2

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Welcome to another edition of What to Watch for Wednesday, a weekly feature where I go over common issues I see when I’m proofreading or wandering through the wilds of the internet. These may be usage errors, common grammar issues, common spelling issues, or anything else along those lines. If you have an issue that you’d like to see highlighted and explained, drop me a line!

The 1400—2022 period of history was quite eventful. Many births, deaths, and other happenings happened-I cannot hazard a guess of how many. And now here we are, in 2023, with more happenings happening every day-so many happenings. Maybe someday, we will take an in–depth look at them all-okay, probably not; this is a proofreading blog, not a news blog. In the meantime, let’s take an in–depth look at what on earth is wrong with this paragraph, and how to prevent it in the future.

Hyphens. En dashes. Em dashes. Don’t you just love them? All these little lines with all these little usages and all these little rules you have to keep up with. Punctuation, am I right?

(Digging into this sticky issue almost DID ME IN, y’all omg.)

Can you tell me which little lines are wrong in that paragraph up there? If you said, “Um, all of them?” then gold star for you!

When do you use a hyphen? When do you use an en dash? What about an em dash? Let’s find out!


Dashes vs. Hyphens: Let the Battle Begin

When I came up with the idea to write about dashes and hyphens, I thought explaining their usage would be simple. Three different punctuation marks: surely the rules for their usage would be straightforward! I’d do some digging, and then I’d pull together a nice little post that would clear it all up for myself and you all.

Oh, how naïve I was.

In 1990, James Nicoll said the following:

We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle [sic] their pockets for new vocabulary.

With a language like that, it’s not surprising that you wind up with a litany of “It depends!” when you ask how to use certain elements of it. That was the case this time: The subject of the different kinds of straight-line punctuation marks is murkier than I was expecting. Let’s see if I can’t shine a little light down this particular dark alleyway and into the puddle of dashes and hyphens.

Em dashes

An em dash is this thing: — 

Look at that—a nice long horizontal line of punctuation that’s longer than its siblings, the en dash and the hyphen. Generally, it tends to be used in place of parentheses or a colon, or to mark an abrupt change in thought, or in spots where a period is too strong but a comma is too weak. And they get used with quotes sometimes, too! Cool, huh?

Thank you, Wikipedia.

Wikipedia also says that sometimes it’s called a “mutton dash.” I like that. I like it a lot.

So. Do you use them with spaces around them? Without spaces?

This is where that dreaded complication of English comes in—the good ol’ “It Depends.”

I know. Let’s join together for a nice, long, weary sigh.

The Associated Press Stylebook says yes, do use spaces around your em dashes. The Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA Handbook both say no. The style guide you’re working with might say something else.

Dear English Language,

Why are you like this?

Sincerely,

M. Neely

En dashes

The en dash is this lil fella: –

En dashes are mostly used to connect items, like two numbers in a range or two alternatives. Something like 1979–1990 uses an en dash, or books 1–3, or sports scores. They’re also used as substitutes for hyphens in compounds that are more complex, such as New York–style pizza, or with compounds that already have hyphens, like non–eye-opener. 

Whether to use the en dash or not is where things get a little murky—gotta love this hodgepodge of a language. AP Style says no, don’t use en dashes. Chicago Manual of Style is on Team En Dash, as is MLA.

Oh, and sometimes an en dash with spaces around it is used instead of an em dash – isn’t English fun?

More weary sigh practice. Nothing is straightforward in this language. Refer to your friendly neighborhood style guide when you’re trying to decide whether or not to use an en dash, or go with your gut.

Hyphens

The humble hyphen, the smallest of this set of siblings: –

Hyphens have a long, long history, with roots dating back to the Late Greek period. They started out like this ‿ and appeared below adjacent letters in the words they were connecting. Later on, Johannes Gutenberg’s tools wouldn’t let him put symbols at the bottom of lines, so the symbol in the middle of a line was born.

(This kind of stuff is so cool to me. Seriously—language is fascinating.)

Hyphens join and separate. They bring together certain compound nouns, verbs, and adjectives. They separate words that are broken apart at the end of a line of justified text, denote prefixes and suffixes under some circumstances, occasionally divide words by syllables, join together names…

There are many, many ways to use a hyphen. The AP Stylebook says, “Use of the hyphen is far from standardized….If a hyphen makes the meaning clearer, use it.” Chicago Manual of Style uses them in phrasal adjectives placed before a noun, but not after, and in several other ways. All of the uses are beyond the scope of this series: this doesn’t even touch on all the times hyphens are used instead of em dashes because of software or equipment limitations!

When in doubt, look it up.

How do you use dashes and hyphens correctly?

Let’s fix up that paragraph I posted at the beginning. Remember that?

The 1400—2022 period of history was quite eventful. Many births, deaths, and other happenings happened-I cannot hazard a guess of how many. And now here we are, in 2023, with more happenings happening every day-so many happenings. Maybe someday, we will take an in–depth look at them all-okay, probably not; this is a proofreading blog, not a news blog. In the meantime, let’s take an in–depth look at what on earth is wrong with this paragraph, and how to prevent it in the future.

Here it is corrected:

The 1400–2022 period of history was quite eventful. Many births, deaths, and other happenings happened—I cannot hazard a guess of how many. And now here we are, in 2023, with more happenings happening every day—so many happenings. Maybe someday, we will take an in-depth look at them all—okay, probably not; this is a proofreading blog, not a news blog. In the meantime, let’s take an in-depth look at what on earth is wrong with this paragraph, and how to prevent it in the future.

And now, to simplify the very much not simple explanation of how to use dashes and hyphens:

Em dash: —

How do we use it? We can use it like a comma, a colon, or parentheses. Em dashes are a bit stronger than commas and more informal than parentheses. We can also use em dashes to denote an interruption in dialogue or thoughts, for attribution of quotes, for redaction, and, on occasion, instead of quotation marks.

Some examples:

  • Bobzo the Example Guy buys the same thing from the store every week—chicken breasts, potatoes, eggs, mild cheddar cheese, butter, and bread.
  • Bobzo—not a terribly adventurous eater—decided it might be time to try something new.
  • “You might like—”

    “I know what I like,” said Bobzo, cutting Frank off. Did he, though? Maybe he could—no. No, he knew what he liked. But that box of macaroni and cheese did look interesting, and Frank was being nice.
  • I don’t care for pizza. — Bobzo

En dash: –

How do we use it? En dashes are mostly used for connecting items or ranges, but with spaces, they can also be used a bit like em dashes.

Some examples:

  • Bobzo always used his eggs a certain way. Eggs 1–4 were for frying. Eggs 6 and 7 were for scrambling. Eggs 8–12 were hard-boiled – he took one of those with him to work every day.
  • Bobzo would only go to the store during a small window of time, 8 a.m.–11 a.m. on Saturdays.
  • Bobzo’s favorite sportsball team beat their rivals 2222–1 in the Supermegasportsbowl Championship yesterday.

Hyphen: –

How do we use it? For clarity, mostly, by joining certain compound words together.

  • Bobzo tries his best to only buy cage-free eggs. He bets Frank never does.
  • When he spied garlic on the label for his croutons, Frank sighed and threw them in the trash. Having a garlic allergy made him wish his groceries came with a money-back guarantee.
  • Sometimes, Bobzo’s sun-baked skin would catch Frank’s eye.

How can you remember them?

Em dashes are the longest ones of the bunch, and, out of the three, they usually deal with the most words.

En dashes are in between, and they deal mostly with ranges, so they’re often joining larger sets of information than hyphens.

Hyphens are the smallest, and they’re usually only joining a few words.

There are exceptions and caveats with all three of these, so refer to a style guide or another reference text when in doubt.

Ready to dash away into the night?

Sometimes, the rules of the English language are straightforward. Periods end sentences and abbreviations. Question marks are at the end of questions. Proper nouns are capitalized.

With some of this language, however, when you’re asking about how to use an element—like a type of punctuation—sometimes the answer is, “It depends.” Frustrating, isn’t it? You want to use it correctly, but you run into a ton of confusing information that leaves the choice almost entirely in your hands.

That’s the case with dashes and hyphens.

Follow these rules of thumb with your dashes and hyphens, and refer to a style guide or another authority when in doubt, and you’ll most likely be okay:

  • Em dashes are the long ones that are used like parentheses, colons, or commas. They’re good for adding some extra oomph that the alternatives lack, but they’re a bit less formal. Use sparingly. They can also cut off a thought or some dialogue, and they can be used to attribute quotes. They may or may not have spaces beside them—that depends on the style you’re using. They look like this: —
  • En dashes deal with ranges or sets of information. Some style guides say don’t use them. Some do. Some say to use them with spaces around them instead of em dashes. Double-check your style guide on this one, folks. They look like this: –
  • Hyphens bring clarity by joining words. Sometimes they separate words. Sometimes they do other things. There are numerous ways to use a hyphen. They look like this: –

I know that, at times, it may sound like I’m super frustrated with this ridiculous language—and, to be honest, I am—but this was actually really, really fun for me. I truly enjoyed digging into this for you all, and I hope I have cleared some of this up for you.


Are all of these little lines a source of great vexation for you? How do you keep up with them? Want to try using them yourself? Give it a try in the comments!

And, hey, are there any words, grammar rules, punctuation problems, or other such things that always give you trouble? Hit me up, and maybe I’ll cover them.

Come back next Wednesday for another edition of What to Watch for Wednesday. And if you need some extra help from a sharp-eyed word nerd, hit me up for a free sample edit or hire me to proofread for you.

See you next time!

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