I was banging my head against the figurative wall of writer’s block as I became more and more frantic for a spark of inspiration for today’s post—when it suddenly hit me. Why not conquer two birds with one stone? 1) Satisfy my grammar-loving curiosity by looking up an answer to a punctuation question that I’ve been meaning to investigate for some time and 2) share my new knowledge with my dear readers.
The hyphen (-), the en dash (–), and the em dash (—). You may not have realized this nuance existed, but there really are three versions of the “dash,” and these punctuation marks have their own sets of distinct rules. While they all connect words and ideas, they do so to different extents that in some ways relate to their lengths.
The hyphen is meant to connect extremely close ideas, often compound words (daughter-in-law, user-friendly, etc.). As an article on The Chicago Manual of Style Online explains, “The hyphen connects two things that are intimately related.” This little line performs an extremely powerful function in language because people can use it to combine several words in order to create an entirely new word. Hyphen originally came from Greek words meaning one, together, and in one.
Going the Distance with En Dash
Like the hyphen, the en dash connects ideas, but these connections are usually related to distance, either in time or space. Here are two examples: “From September–May, most children are in school” and “I have to read chapters 23–30 by next week.” The en dash functions where the word “through” would normally function when describing a range. An interesting rule regarding the en dash is that they are meant to be used when connecting “a prefix to a proper open compound: for example, pre–World War II” (“Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes”). The origin of en dash is that the dash was the width of an N in printing.
Breaking and Filling with Em Dash
Like parentheses and commas, the em dash indicate a break in thought and is used when adding a side-note or additional thought to a sentence, as I used in my opening sentence for this post. In my experience, the closeness of the idea determines whether you should use a comma, em dash, or parenthesis to set off the extra information or to indicate a disrupted thought. The closest ideas work best set off by commas, while very tangential ideas should be enclosed in parentheses, with the em dash falling somewhere in the middle. Another function of the em dash is to indicate that something is missing. An unfinished bit of dialogue might end with an em dash (e.g., “What is that—!”), and it can also serve as a placeholder for curse words, for people’s names (think Austenian novels), and more. Like the origin of en dash, the term em dash comes from the fact that the dash was the length of an M in printing.
Now, next time you want to invent a new word, describe a range in time or space, or build suspense as your reader wonders whether your character has just been eaten, you will have just the right tools to accomplish your task.
“Em dash.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash
“En dash.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash
“Hyphens.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash
“Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online, www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/HyphensEnDashesEmDashes/faq0002.html