Sometimes when I’m editing, I sing a little song in my head: “Here a dash, there a dash, everywhere a dash, dash.” Some authors like to use dashes instead of commas. And they aren’t too picky on the kinds of dashes they are using, either. Em dash, what the heck’s an em dash? But this dash confusion is okay by me. Just let your local editor or proofreader help you out in this area (and by local, I mean us here at Tantamount. How much more local can you be than your very own computer?)
Okay. Presumably if you are reading this, you actually want to learn something about dashes and their proper use. Here goes. There are three basic types of dashes: a hyphen (not technically a dash, but similar), an en dash, and an em dash. There are fancier ones too (double and triple em dashes), but let’s just stick with the basics.
First, let’s review the lovely little hyphen. This guy has his own key on the keyboard and often gets struck twice when an author is attempting an em or en dash. Mr. Hyphen is perfect for compound words like: up-and-coming, hands-on, self-defense, run-down, spring-loaded, and past-due. But you must be careful not to over-do Mr. Hyphen. See what I just did there? Over-do is incorrect. It should be overdo. Or is that over do? I am using Word right now and it is quite happy with over-do and over do, but it really doesn’t like overdo. However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition tells me I’m correct, it’s overdo. That’s what we editors do—we look things up—lots and lots of things.
Hey, did you like how I just introduced our next dash? The dash in the previous sentence is an em dash. These dashes are so-called because they are the width of a capital M. They serve several purposes. They can be used as emphasis within a sentence. That’s what my dash was for. They can also be used with a list of items in a sentence that already has commas. They can indicate a break in thought. And finally, they can be used for a final or summary thought. If you have one of these situations, use an em dash. With Word, all you have to do is type: control—alt—minus sign on the keyboard keypad. Do not use Mr. Hyphen instead of the minus sign. That could be very, very bad. If you do that, use your undo tab in Word and don’t do that again.
Last, but not least, is the en dash. As you probably figured out, it gets its name because it’s basically the size of a capital N. It isn’t used nearly as much as the em dash. En dashes are used primarily to show a range, such as in page numbers, dates and references. En dashes also act as super-hyphens, such as with pre–Ming Dynasty. (Well, technically that’s an adjectival open compound, but honestly, who can remember that?) They look a lot like an em dash—, but are shorter–. Side-by-side you can see the difference, but sometimes it’s hard to tell on-screen. They are inserted the same way as an em dash, but without the alt key: control—minus sign on the keyboard keypad. The same caveat goes here. Do not use Mr. Hyphen instead of the minus sign.
So that’s about it for hyphens. They can sometimes be tricky. With the rules set forth here in mind, go experiment. Hyphenate with confidence. And if you still don’t feel like a master hyphenater, we’re here to help.
P.S. Hyphenater really isn’t a word. But I’m using my style prerogative as the author and purposely using an incorrect word. We let our authors do that here at Tantamount—just so they know it’s wrong but still choose to do it.
Life is short; write how you choose.