Confused about dashes and hyphens? Catriona Tippin sets us straight. 

- The hyphen

This is not, strictly speaking, a dash. It’s in the top row on most keyboard layouts. The hyphen is used in compound words (see http://www.wordsandpics.org/2014/02/when-words-get-together.html) and for word breaks at the end of a line.

– The en dash (or N dash)

Typesetting history gives us the names we use to distinguish the en dash and the em dash. These were the width of the letters n and m in letterpress typesetting.

The en dash is the one some word processing programs substitute for the hyphen when you type 'word space hyphen space word' etc, or you can insert one with Ctrl and the minus key on the numerical keypad (on the far right of a full keyboard).

The en dash is used for ranges, for instance: 1914–18, pages 1–10, ages 3–5, January–July, Paris–Dakar.

— The em dash (or M dash)

Most word processing programs change two hyphens typed in succession to an em dash: 'word hyphen hyphen word', or you can insert one with Ctrl and Alt and the minus key on the numerical keypad.

A pair of em dashes is used to set apart or highlight a component in a sentence. For instance, here are three sentences, each with a different emphasis in the middle, provided by the punctuation:

We’re going on a hunt, for a bear, through long, swishy grass.

We’re going on a hunt (for a bear) through long, swishy grass.

We’re going on a hunt—for a bear—through long, swishy grass.

In each, there’s an aside about what the hunt is for (a bear). With the commas, there’s a neutral ‘rhythm’ to the sentence. The parentheses (curved brackets) ‘de-emphasise’ what they contain; the main things in the middle sentence are the hunt and the grass. With the em dashes, there’s an emphasis on the bear, and an attention-seeking interruption in the middle of the sentence.

A single em dash is used to set apart or emphasise a separate thought in a sentence:

They’re going to go on a hunt—for a bear?

Dash evolution

The usage of dashes has evolved; though some publishers continue to use the em dash—like this—without spaces, some publishers use a spaced em dash — like so — and more often there’s a spaced en dash – this is it – which is the one you’re probably used to seeing automatically inserted.

The spaced en dash is often used as an em dash these days:

We’re going on a hunt – for a bear – through long, swishy grass.
This is arguably more comfortable to read on a screen, particularly a phone or a tablet, where the size of the dash is less obvious. Semicolons and colons are increasingly being replaced by em dashes or spaced en dashes.

To sum up

Use hyphens in compound words and word-breaks, and use en dashes for ranges. For dashes within sentences, if you’re submitting to a publisher, you could have a look at whether they use em dashes or spaced en dashes in their current list. And for self-publishing, choose one style and be consistent.

Thoughts on dashes and more on their history in English punctuation were previously considered in Catriona’s article here.

Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006. Details of her writing and illustrating can be found here . She’s @proofreadingtip on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous. Thank you! Can we have one on when to use a , and when to use a ; and when to use a : please?


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