Style Matters #28: Dash it! Hyphens differ from other horizontal punctuation

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Sometimes the subtlety of punctuation use escapes writers, especially those who are not all that familiar with employing – some might say quaint – typographical marks such as the hyphen ( – ), the dash ( – ), the long dash ( — ) and the underscore (_).

Let’s review each and see how they can be deployed.

Hyphen (-)

  • used to link two or more words, or word parts, that work as one unit:
    long-held belief, multi-million dollars; multi-million-dollar deal;
    non-English-speaking role

    • forms compound adjectives (modifiers):
      a half-hearted attempt by a well-known author
    • forms some compound nouns:
      mother-in-law; barrister-at-law; jack-of-all-trades
    • however, not if modifier contains an adverb (which usually end in ly or y):
      community based program; hardly closed door; fine-tuned but finely tuned
  • does not have spaces around it when used singly, that is, it is placed hard up against the words or part-words that it connects
  • used when a prefix is attached to a word beginning with a capital letter:
    pre-Raphaelite; post-Depression; anti-Communist; un-Australian; non-English
  • used with specific, whole-word prefixes:
    self-centred; self-control; self-esteem; part-filled; part-time; part-owned; oft-quoted; oft-seen; oft-heard
  • used when last letter of prefix and first letter of main word are vowels:
    co-ordination; pre-eminent; re-enter; anti-establishment; semi-autonomous
  • used to clarify meaning: re-creation (rather than recreation)
  • used when fractions have to be written out in full, as in describing portions in text (rather than in recipes) and other instances:
    one-quarter cordial and three-quarters water; two-thirds; four-fifths (check whether this instruction conforms to house style of the publisher for whom you are working, as some will prefer figures)
  • used by some publishers to separate sets of numerals or letters in a telephone or longer serial number:
    3555-5155A80-B90-J33-S29-R16
  • some publishers allow hanging hyphens on lists, but others do not (so check):
    first-, second- and third-time winners; part- and full-time positions
  • does not do the same job as a dash (see below)
  • is used when writers need to show a minus sign (again, the symbol is placed hard up against the numeral):
    -15-30 degrees; -900

Dash ( – ) [aka en dash]

  • a slightly longer version of a hyphen that should be accessible on most keyboards
    • if not, the ASCII code to render a dash is 150
    • a dash is equal to a printer’s en measure (about the width of the lowercase letter n) and commonly known as an en dash
  • should have a space either side of it, to distinguish it from a hyphen (some publishing houses require no spaces on either side of the dash, so it’s wise to check each outlet’s style guide)
  • can be used, usually for effect, in place of other punctuation such as commas, colons or brackets (parentheses)
    • can be used singly at front or back end of a sentence that features a summarising series, usually in place of a colon(:):
      Alimony, custody, visitation and shared property arrangements – all are ties that bind the newly extended family.
      OR
      The newly extended family is tied by decree – alimony, custody, visitation and shared property arrangements.
    • more commonly used in pairs, in place of commas or a pair of brackets, to encase a discrete thought, aside or longer idea, within a longer sentence:
      • used to show the beginning and end of a discrete interruption to the main thought of a sentence (in such cases the content between the dashes is not essential to the meaning of the sentence and can be “read over”):
        As the magistrate lifted his gavel to announce his decision – and the court fell silent – the accused fidgeted in his seat, looking down at the floor.
        AND
        The play was such a success – ultimately because this cast had such an accomplished director – that its run will be extended by six weeks.
      • used to encase a series of items listed as an example (perhaps in place of a bracketed list):
        With an increasing number of “extended families” – children, step-children, former and current spouses, as well as other close relatives – many buyers are looking for larger homes.
        AND
        There are many good reasons – from an unbeaten season, three medals and four trophies to a national award for its coach – for the team to be jubilant.
  • some publishers (usually not news outlets) require number ranges and other series to have an en dash rather than a hyphen:
    May 7­­­–10; Rooms 104–291; May–September season
  • NB: if there is no ready access to a dash (for example, on some typewriters), writers may be instructed by publishing houses to use two hyphens with no space in between but to keep spaces either side of the hyphen pair (again, check with publisher’s style guide)

Long dash ( — ) [aka em dash]

  • a longer version of the dash that is usually accessible on most keyboards (may require a combination of keys)
    • if not, the ASCII code to render a long dash is 151
    • a long dash is equal to a printer’s em measure (about the width of the lowercase letter m) and commonly known as an em dash
  • more commonly used by book publishers than news outlets, which tend to go with the (shorter) en dash, a long dash can be used singly at front or back end of a sentence that features a summarising series:
    Alimony, custody, visitation and shared property arrangements — all are ties that bind the newly extended family.
    OR
    The newly extended family is tied by decree — alimony, custody, visitation and shared property arrangements.
  • again, more commonly used by book publishers than news outlets, which tend to go with (shorter) en dashes, pairs of long dashes are used to encase a discrete thought or an aside within a longer sentence
    • used to show the beginning and end of a discrete interruption to the main thought of a sentence (in such cases the content between the dashes is not essential to the meaning of the sentence and can be “read over”):
      As the magistrate lifted his gavel to announce his decision — and the court fell silent — the accused fidgeted in his seat, looking down at the floor.
      AND
      The play was such a success — ultimately because this cast had such an accomplished director — that its run will be extended by six weeks.
    • used to encase a series of items listed as an example:
      With an increasing number of “extended families” — children, step-children, former and current spouses, as well as other close relatives — many buyers are looking for larger homes.
      AND
      There are many good reasons — from an unbeaten season, three medals and four trophies to a national award for its coach — for the team to be jubilant.
  • should have a space either side of it (some publishing houses require no spaces on either side of the dash, so it’s wise to check each outlet’s style guide)
  • NB: if there is no ready access to the long dash (for example on typewriters), writers may instructed by publishing houses to use two hyphens with no space ( — ) in between but to keep spaces either side of the hyphen pair (again, check with publisher’s style guide)

Underscore

  • back in the days of typewriters, the underscore was used to underline words (writers would first type the text, then back space and underline it by repeatedly striking the underscore key, which was usually the upper case option on the hyphen key) for emphasis or to indicate to typesetters that the underlined text should be set in bold type
  • today this punctuation mark has a very different use when it is applied instead of a space in computer filenames, URLs and email addresses because all of these require an unbroken string of characters to function
  • some news agencies (wire news services) will use underscores in place of en dashes, em dashes or bullets, as their systems cannot successfully transmit those characters
  • the ASCII code to render an underscore is 95

———–

If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters

 

 

 

 

 

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3 responses to “Style Matters #28: Dash it! Hyphens differ from other horizontal punctuation

  1. Thanks. I hope you find plenty of useful posts here, as this entry is part of a larger series of writing tips especially aimed at those who write for a living.

  2. Thanks. This is just one of a 50-post series. I hope you enjoy some of the rest of the entries. Cheers, Trina

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