Share This

Dashes and Hyphens: The Long and Short of It | Kestrel's Aerie

Dashes and Hyphens: The Long and Short of It | Kestrel's Aerie

Dashes and Hyphens: The Long and Short of It

If you write much at all, you are probably aware that you have a “favorite” punctuation mark. (By favorite, I don’t necessarily mean “favorite.” I mean favorite in the sense that you may overuse, or even abuse, it.) For some, it’s the ellipsis; for others, the semicolon. (See what I did there?) Some people thrive on colons or parentheses. If you are a regular reader, you probably recognize me as a serial abuser of all those forms of punctuation. But the little marks that arguably get the most abuse—yet may be the easiest to use correctly and consistently—are dashes. (See that? I did it again!)

Dashes come in three convenient sizes, because one size does not fit all. Furthermore, they have names! From longest to shortest, their names are em, en, and hyphen. The first two are brothers (or sisters, or brother and sister): their last name is “dash.” They get their first names from the fact that their length (or width) corresponds to typesetters’ spaces: One em is the width of the letter m, and one en is the width of the letter n. Hence, em dash and en dash (and no, there is no dash, or hyphen, after “em” or “en”).

You may think the giant, economy-sized em dash should be the one for all occasions. Or, if you’re conservative and don’t like wasting ink (or pixels), you want to stick with the hyphen for all your dashing needs. Sadly, as I proclaimed in the preceding paragraph, one size doesn’t fit all uses. For example, look at the first sentence in this paragraph, and imagine it with an em dash in place of the hyphen. Better yet, you don’t even have to use your imagination! Here you go: “You may think the giant, economy—sized em dash….” Not so good, eh?

And this brings us to the crux of the matter: When should you use which dash? For you, dear reader, I slogged through the Internet—twelve miles, uphill both directions, in the snow!—err, sorry, wrong metaphor. Ahem…. I researched this very question, so you wouldn’t have to.1

The Hyphen

Let’s start with the smallest of our three symbols, the hyphen. According to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the hyphen technically isn’t a dash. However, that ruins my whole schtick, so we’ll ignore that minor point. “A rose, by any other name…”

As time passes, more and more compound words are losing their hyphens

One of the main uses of the hyphen used to be in compound words: post-office, tea-bag, life-line. In time, the hyphens were replaced with spaces; now, the spaces are gone as well for some of those words; e.g., lifeline. As time goes on, an increasing number of compounds are losing their hyphens.

However, compound modifiers preceding a noun generally retain a hyphen. For example, you may have “a half-full glass,” but “the glass is half full.” (An exception to this preference—it’s hardly a rule—is when one part of the compound ends in “-ly” (“family” doesn’t count!).) You wouldn’t hyphenate “a sickly green shade” but “family-oriented programming” should be.2 In other words, a compound modifier in which the first word ends in “-ly” generally isn’t hyphenated.

Whether or not you hyphenate can make a considerable difference in meaning: compare “small engine-repair shop” to “small-engine repair shop.” Avoid the temptation to use two hyphens in the second example.

Hyphens are also used when writing out the numbers twenty-one to ninety-nine, as well as when separating numbers, such as telephone or Social Security numbers: 1-800-555-1212 or 135-24-6789. Hyphens are also used when spelling out a word in dialogue: “The correct spelling of my first name is s-t-e-p-h-e-n.” Finally, if you are hyphenating words at the end of a line, the hyphen (duh!) is the obvious, and correct, choice.

The En Dash

Generally, the en dash is used to connect numbers, and occasionally words, in place of the word to:

  • My years at UCLA, 1969–1974, were years I sometimes wish I could do over.
  • Documentation and indexing are covered in chapters 16–18 of CMS.
  • Professor Ryan’s office hours are Monday–Wednesday, 2:00–4:30. (Note the en dash used to bridge Monday through Wednesday.)
  • UCLA beat NC State, 74–54.
  • The House voted 239–219 in favor of the healthcare reform bill.

How in the dickens do you type an en dash?

According to CMS, “For the sake of parallel construction the word to, never the en dash, should be used if the word from precedes the first element; similarly, and, never the en dash, should be used if between precedes the first element.” To wit:

  • I attended UCLA from 1969 to 1974.
  • I wrote extensively about World of Warcraft between August 2007 and January 2009.
  • Professor Ryan’s office hours are Monday and Wednesday, from 2:00 to 4:30.

Everyone knows where the hyphen is on their keyboard, and almost everyone knows a double hyphen can be used to indicate an em dash (and many word processors will automatically convert consecutive hyphens to an em dash). But how in the dickens do you type an en dash? If you’re using Windows, you can hold the Alt key and type 0177. On the Mac, I use the Character Viewer and the Insert with Font button. However, I just looked this up, because I thought “There has to be an easier way!” And there is: For an en dash, it’s Option-hyphen (not the minus key!), and for an em dash, Shift-Option-hyphen (if your software won’t convert the double hyphen).3

There are a few more esoteric uses for the en dash (as a substitute for a hyphen in certain cases, and to indicate university branches, as in University of Wisconsin–Madison), but they generally aren’t something you’ll need to worry about when blogging or writing fiction.

The Em Dash

The em dash is like a colon, only more dramatic and less formal

Think of the em dash as the grand poobah of dashes. It’s the symbol most of us think of most often when we think of dashes—if we think of dashes at all, of course. (Okay, it’s the one I think of…don’t be so picky!) To put it simply, and the way Grammar Girl explains it, the em dash is like a colon, only more dramatic and less formal. Of course, this begs the question: How is a colon properly used? (Hint: See the previous sentence for an example.) We’ll just gloss over that for the time being.

With respect to appearances, CMS is rather prescriptive: Don’t use more than two em dashes in a sentence. If you need to set off more than two elements, use parentheses. I think you’ll understand this if you write a sentence where you are setting off several elements: It’s easy to see an entire element if you use parentheses, because of the open/close nature. But if you had three or four or more em dashes in a sentence, how would you determine what the separate elements are?

So…we can use an em dash in place of a colon, especially if we want the pause to be a bit more dramatic. We can also use em dashes (often just called dashes, by the way) to set off parenthetical comments. In either case, we generally are amplifying or explaining the earlier part of the sentence. I haven’t consciously paid attention to my use of dashes thus far in this article, so let’s use them as examples.

But the little marks that arguably get the most abuse—yet may be the easiest to use correctly and consistently—are dashes. Here’s an obvious case of amplification. Certainly, I could have expanded my identification of dashes in a second sentence: “But the little marks that arguably get the most abuse are dashes. Yet, they may be the easiest to use correctly and consistently.” The meaning is virtually the same, but the impact, at least when I read the second version, is lessened.

For you, dear reader, I slogged through the Internet—twelve miles, uphill both directions, in the snow!—err, sorry, wrong metaphor. Again, I (rather hyperbolically) described my Internet search. Notice also the use of the exclamation point preceding the em dash: that’s fine, as is a question mark, but don’t use a comma, colon, or semicolon there.

An exception to this preference—it’s hardly a rule—is when one part of the compound ends in “-ly” (“family” doesn’t count!). This is an explanatory example, where I’m making a distinction between preference and rule.

All three of the preceding examples are of the same category of use. Another way in which the dash is used is to separate a subject (or series of subjects) from a pronoun that introduces the main clause.

Foolish consistencies—those are the hobgoblins of little minds and prescriptivist grammarians.

Jefferson, who penned the words; Adams, who presented the ideals; and Franklin, who tempered the arguments—these are the men most directly involved in crafting the Declaration.

When writing dialogue, a dash can indicate a sudden break in thought or an interruption, as in the following example:

It was Castle’s turn to sigh. “Devon—”
She cut him off: “Nate, listen to me.”

On the other hand, if a comma would normally be used in dialogue, it should be also used with the dash:

“Devon—,” Nate began, but she cut him off.

Finally, there are two other uses of dashes, but both are fairly uncommon. The two-em dash is used to represent the missing part of a word, either an expletive or the omitted part of a name, to disguise an individual: “General B— — and Admiral H— — both agreed to the plan.” “Senator M— —y [McCarthy?] voted Nay.” And the three-em dash is used in bibliographies to indicate subsequent entries for the preceding author and work.

That wasn’t so bad, was it?

I hope I’ve cleared up any confusion you may have had regarding hyphens and dashes, as well as helped you to understand why, when, and how you might use them in your writing. Obviously, this is a rather abbreviated discussion, so I encourage you to read more if you’re so inclined. You could do a lot worse than reading the sources linked in Footnote 1 (CMS requires a subscription, I’m afraid). But if you have any questions, or odd uses you want to discuss, dive into the comments.

(Lookie there: One whole paragraph, and nary a hyphen nor dash to be seen!)

  1. Among the resources I examined are the Chicago Manual of Style and Grammar Girl (twice).
  2. And yes, I’m making the distinction for the picky, who may not recognize we’re talking adjectives and adverbs ending in “-ly” but not nouns. *Grin*
  3. Incidentally, the Mac will convert a double minus-sign to an em dash, but it won’t work with the Option-key alternatives.


4 Responses to Dashes and Hyphens: The Long and Short of It
  1. Tami
    March 23, 2010 | 14:46

    Forgive me if this was covered – should there be spaces between em dashes and the surrounding text? Your examples do not have it, but I was under the impression it might be a matter of writer preference?

    Also, whee, Darklight bits!
    .-= Tami´s latest blog post is Weekly Wordcount =-.

    • Kestrel
      March 23, 2010 | 15:05

      Almost anything is a matter of preference…but no: According to every source I’ve seen, but especially CMS, there are no spacesaround dashes, neither leading or following.

      And yes, I should have made that point explicitly; my mistake. :(

      Oh, and re: Darklight bits. The first example is the way it is. I’m wondering if the second may be better… ;)

  2. Elleseven
    March 23, 2010 | 16:18

    These grammar posts are excellent. My daughter is studying for an upcoming honors english entrance exam that will be over 3 hours long. As you can tell I’m hardly an expert at grammar, but these posts should help us alot. It’s amazing how much better an instructor you are at grammar than the powers that be in the Canadian education system.

    PS.. now I’m all grammar conscious. Should english be a caps or not? Also have you read Eats, shoots &leaves? I was wondering if you recommended it.

  3. Kestrel
    March 23, 2010 | 19:10

    Thanks for the compliment! :) Hope these posts are helpful; I also can’t recommend Grammar Girl highly enough.

    And yes, in English, “English” is capitalized. In other languages, the names of languages aren’t (Spanish, for example).

    I do own a copy of E,S,&L, and love it. One thing to keep in mind is that are are some subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences between American English, and British/Canadian/Aussie/NZ English. I try to point those out when I’m aware of them (and when I remember!).

Performance Optimization WordPress Plugins by W3 EDGE