Sunday, July 1, 2012

Dash it! What's the point of a hyphen? Help Nest feature # 6






Hyphens, em dashes and en dashes.  They all look the same so where, dear reader, should we use them?  In fact, why should we use them?

Before I present you with this Help Nest feature (thank you Judit), I should declare a deep and long-hidden secret.

For a very long time, I really didn't know there WAS such a thing as an 'em' or an 'en' dash.   I spent the better part of my forty years in complete ignorance. This was until one of my grammarian friends said, 'no, Andrea, you don't use a hyphen there, you use the elegant em dash'.

As for hyphens, I tend to use them in a cavalier and careless stream-of-consciousness* way in my writing.   

This is not entirely treason, as it seems that rules and uses of the hyphen (or its cousins the em or en dash) are really quite loose and used in any number of creative ways to aid expression.

As the image above suggests, the hyphen is going the way of much punctuation. There tends to be an inclination toward minimalism and they are used less and less.  However, what I have attempted to provide are a few examples of how they might be used, to what effect and some of the rules of their use.


One of the most common uses (given in the example below) is to join compound words.

noun + adjective
noun + participle
adjective + participle
accident-prone
computer-aided
good-looking
sugar-free
power-driven
quick-thinking
carbon-neutral
user-generated
bad-tempered
sport-mad
custom-built
fair-haired
camera-ready
muddle-headed
open-mouthed

Oxford dictionaries online (accessed 2 July, 2012) 


Our friends at Purdue, in their excellent resource on hyphen use, describe how hyphens can be used for prefixes such as 'ex'  ('ex-officio') and 'self' ('self-assured').  They also explain how hyphens come in handy for separating words at the end of a line.  However, they stress this should be after a syll-
able.


The University of Sussex, explains the cardinal rules of hyphen use.  These are to use them to achieve clarity in writing; to avoid unnecessary use and to consult a well-regarded dictionary for consistency.

On the last point, they give the example of  'land-owners, land owners or landowners?' to highlight how confusing the hyphen can be. In my Oxford Concise, it is 'landowner'.  I have seen it written as 'land owner' in The Daily Telegraph (UK) .  Although I did not see any hyphenated versions of the word, I did find an online definition of 'land-holder in the Collins Dictionary.  See why it's so confusing?

Roy Peter Clark, in his whimsical work The glamour of grammar (2010) describes a novel use for the b----- hyphen, which is to leave letters out of a word to partially disguise its profanity.   The bl--dy hyphen, he explains, is sometimes used to simply replace the vowels when cheeky editors are feeling a bit bold.  He pays homage to the hyphen by saying that (in addition to the ellipsis) it can be your best friend when leaving something out of a text for the sake of brevity, taste or dramatic effect.

The em dash—and I had to cut and copy this dash from another source because I forgot which keys to use—is longer and used to separate or shift thoughts midstream through a sentence.  I find it easy to see why some people swear by it but tend to forget to use it because it is cumbersome to insert.  (One important rule is never to put a space before or after it.)

The en dash is half the width (-) of the em dash and is used to show a range in numerical or other values. For example, 46-102 or November-January. As you can see, I couldn't figure out how to put in an en dash so I used a hyphen.  (I am sure purists would not approve and would adroitly know the six key combination to use to insert the correct punctuation.)

In summary, I would not expect you to use my blog post as a definitive guide (given my opening admission).  However, I would ask you to consider that hyphens and other dashes are handy; the purpose of each is different and there is an abundance of (sometimes conflicting) advice to find on the internet or in style guides.

I do welcome (as always) your comments and suggestions for other readers.  Finally, thank you to Judit for her query on the Owl/Possum Help Nest on June 5 which inspired me to research hyphens and their dashed friends further.

* Stream-of-consciousness was something I learned this morning when reading a couple of chapters of Henry James's The portrait of a lady.  Yes, reader, James coined this handy term to describe the free-falling, wide-ranging thought patterns of his lovely protagonist, Isabel.   Just thought I'd share something I found interesting.   :)

11 comments:

David Cox said...

Andrea tells me that I will be stoned by the University of Sussex, but I always just use a hyphen, and separate it with spaces if I want to use it as what I now know is an em dash. But I am religious about compound adjectives. I have had enough of stoned (in another sentence) students doing good work (that would be the high quality students).

AmLou said...

I'm fairly new here, but I've been editing for a newspaper for several years. I think the above post is interesting, but I have an unrelated question: Why single quotes instead of double quotes? I see this more and more from people in the work I do, and I've been wondering why it's so common.

Andrea Duff said...

Hi AmLou

What a timely question you ask. This is a point of friendly contention between University language units in the US and in Australia. I, too, have a background in journalism, having completed a Masters a couple of years ago. The rule-of-thumb is single quotes in our style guides over here. I think this is in-keeping with a tendency towards less punctuation. I have a hunch this is mostly an Australian thing, but I would be very interested to hear from others if it is a global phenomenon. A single quotation mark, I guess, is less 'frilly' than a double. Do we have some more learned responses or views about this?

AmLou said...

Hmmm, very interesting. That likely explains why I see it so often. While the majority of the text that comes across my desk for editing comes from U.S. writers, perhaps the ones who use single quotes have viewed content from Australia online and thought it was correct for U.S. grammar.

Perhaps someday in the not-so-distant future as the Internet exposes us to other cultures and their grammar practices, a global standard will be developed for English grammar.

Andrea Duff said...

Perhaps, AmLou, I wonder if the Internet will eventually serve to homogenise the English language or whether it is just too bigger creature. Especially when you consider there are variations on English in countries such as Singapore with 'Singlish'; there is slang and idiom in Australia; cockney slang in England; variation in spelling between countries; different uses of punctuation... The list goes on and on. The Grammar Gang has really brought these cultural differences to the fore. The first inclination is to say - 'hey - that's wrong. You don't spell organise with a z'. But then, who can say who is right and who is wrong? I think it's great because in recognising difference, we celebrate diversity.

Julia Miller said...

Yateendra Joshi has just sent us these interesting comments to add to this discussion:

Choosing between spaced en dashes and unspaced em dashes seems more a matter of taste or aesthetics than of logic, as the appended citations show.

However, I want to introduce another angle to the discussion: not so much to make the case for the unspaced en dash stronger but to speculate whether the matter has some neurological basis. Ramachandran (2010) postulates a ‘built-in, nonarbitrary correspondence between the visual shape of an object and the sound (or at least the kind of sound) that might be its “partner”.’ In the present case, although no sound is involved, perhaps we are concerned with capturing the notion of abruptness visually but cannot agree upon either what captures that abruptness best or the degree of abruptness. To my mind, unspaced em dashes are too abrupt but ‘your mileage may vary’.

Ramachandran V S. 2010. The Tell-tale Brain: unlocking the mystery of human nature, pp. 171–172. London: Random House. 358 pp.

Oxford and most US publishers use a closed-up em rule as a parenthetical dash; other British publishers use the en rule with space either side.
OUP. 2005. New Hart’s Rules, p. 80. Oxford University Press. 417 pp.

Em and en dashes are typically set flush against the surrounding text. Some fonts include a little white space around the em dash; some don’t. If your em dashes look like they’re being crushed, it’s fine to add word spaces before and after.
Butterick M. 2010. Typography for Lawyers: essential tools for polished & persuasive documents, p. 49. Houston, Texas: Jones McClure Publishing. 220 pp.

Another stylistic preference is to add a space before and after en- and em-dashes. Although this is not the norm (and not considered correct by some purists), if the dashes appear too tight, go ahead and do this.
Strizver I. 2001. Type Rules!, p. 119. Cincinnati, Ohio: North Light Books. 160 pp.

Without any space on each side, the [en] rule appears to link rather than to separate words, like an elongated hyphen. A spaced en rule ( – ) or ³/₄-em rule [three-fourths em rule] may be preferable for the majority of purposes; one of these will be visible enough without being conspicuous.
Williamson H. 1983. Methods of Book Design: the practice of an industrial craft, 3rd edn, p. 146. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. 392 pp.

Parenthetical dashes
Spaced en rules are now most often used. If the dashes are unspaced in the text, insert a space on either side of each one.
Butcher J, Drake C, and Leach M. 2006. Butcher's Copy-editing: the Cambridge handbook for editors, copy-editors and proofreaders, 4th edn, p. 153. Cambridge University Press. 543 pp.

Dashes should be n-dashes rather than m-dashes or hyphens.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide/d

Anonymous said...

Can anyone provide any advice on the use of dashes to separate sentences rather than words? I frequently use a dash where a comma seems inappropriate - for example, in this sentence. Should I be using a semi-colon, or should I be sticking with a comma?

I don't want to change as I rely on dashes for my written tone, but equally I don't want to be peppering my written communication with errors!

Kristine said...

I used to forget which keys to use and would bang at the keyboard mercilessly in search of the en- and em-dashes.

In Word, the en-dash can be inserted with ctrl/minus pressed at the same time. Note, this is not the hyphen key; it is specifically the minus symbol on the numeric keypad.
Similarly, the em-dash can be inserted with ctrl/alt/minus pressed simultaneously.

Unfortunately, this doesn't translate on all programs or devices (which is most unsettling when you're searching for an en-dash on an iPad).

Anonymous said...

Actually I think nearly-departed is incorrect as you don't need to hyphenate adverbs.

Andrea Duff said...

You are probably-right Anonymous!

;) Kind regards, Andrea

Andrea Duff said...

You are probably-right Anonymous!

;) Kind regards, Andrea