How to master dashes

This week an unfortunate headline has been making people laugh.

How to master dashes - 'students get first hand job experience'.

Hyphens and dashes help avoid confusion and embarrassment, and make our writing faster to read and understand. They’re among the most useful yet misunderstood marks in the punctuation world.

The three main species are the hyphen (short and all-pervasive), the en-dash (2–3 times as long) and the em-dash (the longest—my favourite).

The Decline of the Dash

When typewriters came about they had no key to produce a dash, just a hyphen. So people rarely used dashes, or they had to use two hyphens. Only printing typesetters could conjure them.

Technology gives us opportunity to revive dashes. Yet computers and touch screens need combination keystrokes or long presses to prise them from their character banks. So hyphens dominate as a convenient stand-in.

Having said that, you may have noticed Word automatically turn a hyphen into a dash when you type one between words, using spaces.

This is what each one is, when to use it and how to insert it into text.

Hyphen

Hardy little fly-like characters, essential for the health of a text, but not welcome in large numbers. Use them to connect the parts of some compound words (words made from two or more words) and to clarify meaning. Consider their usefulness in these sentences:

She owns a little used car.
The shop owner helped the dog bite victims.
Five coach trains will be introduced.

Churchill called them blemishes. Though common, they tend to get wiped out when they become widely used in a language. For example, E-mail quickly became email. Here’s where to use them:

  • Compound adjectives (describing words): A self-conscious student. State-of-the-art design. An extreme-weather conference.
  • Compound nouns (things): A passer-by. A ne’er-do-well. The mother-in-law.
  • Don’t use them for common compound verbs (go up, fall over, turn out). Do so for coined (made up) verbs and ones when there’ll be obvious ambiguity, eg. The Queen has throne-sat for 65 yearsThey spot-checked the exams and decided to re-mark them. They re-formed the band.
  • Numbers: Phil was forty-five years old. 
  • With certain prefixes, though a flash point for hyphen debate: un-British, anti-American, pro-warsemi-final.

Beware: using hyphens when there’s no call for them will give your document hyphenitis. If it’s in the dictionary with one, or if there’s room for unclear meaning, use one. Don’t over exploit them.

Hyphens also have miscellaneous uses such as:

  • Missing words or parts of words: The juvenile defendant, – – – – – – – – – –.
  • Spelling out words: D-I-S-C-O.
  • Avoiding letter collision: The Co-op Bank. I’m going to de-ice the car. The rain forest was very fly-y.
  • Making pronunciation clear: right-o, ey-up.

Don’t use spaces with them unless you’re going for a dash.

How to put one in your document:

It’s the same button as the minus symbol. It’s between 0 and = on your keyboard and in the top corner of the number pad.

En-dash

Named for its width, the size of a lower-case N. Rarer than its smaller cousin, like a hover fly, it’s balanced, functional and versatile, and should be used:

  • Between numeric ranges: pages 20–23, from 1973–1977.
  • To show conflict, connection, or direction: the Trump–Clinton debate, the A14–A1(M) link, the road runs east–west.
  • As a super-hyphen. The longer mark shows you’re linking more than just the two joined words: The City University–bound bus. Also when you want to connect an already hyphenated word: Push-pull–minded marketing.

The en-dash often appears with spaces on each side, imitating an em-dash. Word’s automatic punctuating will do this.

How to put one in your document:

In Word: after typing a word, press space–hyphen–space, then another word. When you press space again (or full-stop or comma) your hyphen will change to an en-dash.

Or, press Ctrl and minus on the number pad.

In browsers and other PC software: hold down Alt and type 0150 on the number pad.

On a Mac: Option–Minus.

On your tablet or mobile phone: hold down the hyphen-minus symbol. You’ll have a choice of dashes. Select the mid-sized one.

Em-dash

As wide as an upper-case M, the em-dash is rare and pretty, yet informal. Sleek, like a damselfly, she links ideas, adding contrast, emphasis, explanations and afterthoughts. You can call on her to:

  • Connect an aside or a contrasting or explaining statement in your sentence: The project will end in January—unless we receive more funding.
  • To replace a comma, colon, semi-colon or parentheses (brackets) for more emphasis. Compare Only one person (the boss) can authorise it with Only one person—the boss—can authorise it.
  • To introduce or set off a series: Three applicants—Richard Davies, Rosanna Fontana and Tarandeep Nasim—seem well qualified for the job.
  • To attribute a quotation: If commas are open to interpretation, hyphens are downright Delphic. —Mary Norris.

Don’t isolate her—she must sit next to other characters. And don’t overwork her in formal documents as it can show your ideas lack proper sentence structure and discipline.

How to put one in your document:

In Word: type a word. Then without typing a space, type two hyphens and another word. When you next press space your hyphen will change to an em-dash.

Or, hold down Alt and Ctrl and press the minus key on the number pad.

In other programs: hold down Alt and type 0151 on the number pad.

On a Mac: Shift–Option–Minus.

On your tablet or mobile phone touch screen: hold down the hyphen-minus symbol. You’ll have a choice of dashes. Select the longest one.

~ ¯ ― ‒ ∽

Other dashes to look out for

And that’s not all. There are many other exotic varieties in the wild. Swung dashes, two- and three-em dashes, horizontal bars, figure bars, macrons and the tilde family are just the start in a diverse kingdom of dashes.

There’s really no excuse for not using them, folks—long live the dash!


Want to learn more? Take a look at my punctuation and grammar workshop, which covers all the important marks and clarifies common confusions.

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