The Secret Life of Dashes

dashesI was explaining the difference between hyphens, en dashes and em dashes the other day, and the recipient of my edited-for-brevity wisdom suggested I should blog it, as it was the first time she’s understood the differences.

So here it is. It’s certainly not comprehensive – the hyphen has a number of rules, all of which you can disover at  Purdue University’s handy OWL site.

But here’s a quick rundown on the hyphen, the en dash and the em dash for everyday, contemporary use.

The hyphen  is only used to combine words into a compound word, or to add prefixes to terms for clarity.

  • Some juice company wants you to buy a rubbish-free lunch, as opposed to a rubbish free lunch (that is, a free lunch that is rubbish).
  • Students benefit from one-one-one time.

Note that hyphens are not needed when combining an -ly adverb with an adjective.

  • Golf is sometimes played with a brightly coloured ball.

The en dash (so-named because it was originally the same width as a printer’s capital N) is usually used to separate number ranges and has a space on either side. The keyboard command (using the number pad) is ALT 0150.

  • Turn to pages 16 – 18.

In online texts, the en dash is also often used in place of the em dash to separate words or sub-clauses that might otherwise be separated using brackets or commas, and to add emphasis to the item following the dash.

  • I used to live in Canberra, if you call that living.
  • I used to live in Canberra – if you call that living.
  • Canberra’s environment offers outdoor activities (bushwalking, bird-watching, rock climbing) for the brave and bored.
  • Canberra’s environment offers outdoor activities – bushwalking, bird-watching, rock climbing – for the brave and bored.

The em dash (which was the width of a printer’s capital M) is used without a space on either side and generally separates words or clauses.  As with the en dash, it often adds emphasis to the word or phrase following the dash. This dash is much less commonly used in online texts these days, as it’s considered harder to read on screens. The keyboard command is ALT 0151.

  • I used to live in Canberra—if you call that living.
  • Canberra’s environment offers outdoor activities—bushwalking, bird-watching, rock climbing—for the brave and bored.

This is a very broad guide and is certainly not definitive. The use of dashes might vary depending on the style guide for your company/publisher too – but this’ll do for starters.

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.