Monday, January 24, 2011

60-Second Syntax: Hyphens and Dashes

60-Second Syntax is a quick look at some common mistakes in writing.

Please note: Different editors may follow different styles and rules.

Today, we’re talking hyphens and dashes and when they should be used.

For starters, here’s a visual to demonstrate the difference of each. Notice that each punctuation mark gets slightly longer as you go down the list.

A hyphen: –
An en dash: –
An em dash: —

To create a dash in Microsoft word, go to the Insert tab and click on “Symbol.” There you will find the en and em dashes. Simply click on the symbol you want, and it will appear in your text.

Hyphens are used to create compound nouns or modifiers; to break up a word at the end of a line; as a separator for numbers that are not inclusive, such a phone number or social security number; and for words that are spelled out.

Example: The social security number of the girl with the peed-on-snow[i] blond hair is 123-45-6789. Her phone number is (555) 555-5555. She is totally p-h-a-t!

En dashes are used to separate inclusive numbers such as in years, measurements, ranges, dates, times, etc.
Example: Her weight from 1999–2006 fluctuated between 120–140 pounds.

Em dashes are used for break outs in text (instead of parentheses or commas) or to show an interruption or a sudden break in dialogue. Note: Whether or not a space is inserted before and after the em dash is a matter of house style.

Example: My favorite quote from “America’s Next Top Model” — Bitch done spilt beer on my weave — surprising pops up in many a conversation among my peers, though no one actually has a weave.
Example: “Jimmy and me were conversating[sic]—” “What do you mean Jimmy and you?”[ii]

Random dash trivia: The term “em dash” refers to the width of a capital M in whichever typeface you are using. An em dash is as long as the M is wide. And en dash is ½ the width of an em dash.


[i] This lovely adjective is courtesy of the snarky folks at Television Without Pity’s “America’s Next Top Model” forum.
[ii] This gem was courtesy of some Jersey hair salon show I flipped passed one day and was mesmerized by the new vocabulary that was being created.