First off, no matter what anyone tells you, this is not the dash key:
That’s a hyphen on that key. Also, pressing it twice does not equal a dash.
There are three main symbols that are often mistaken: hyphen, en dash, and em dash. I’ll discuss those in this article. Others, such as the figure dash, horizontal bar, minus sign, and swung dash have quite specific uses, which you can read about elsewhere; although I might address them at a later date.
A hyphen (-) is the shortest of the three. It’s also the easiest to type since it has its own key.
Usage of the hyphen can be complicated; after all, The Canadian Style uses up 11 pages to discuss it. Don’t fret, however; there are a few tips to help you in most situations:
- Hyphens join compound modifiers and the word it modifies (e.g. tight-fitting Speedos or previously-bought peppers)
- Hyphens join parts of a word when the word is split between lines (usually in justified text)
- Hyphens sometimes separate prefixes and suffixes. This is not very common and usually reserved for clarity (e.g. co-op vs. coop, re-treat vs. retreat, and re-creation vs. recreation)
The en dash ( – ) is the middle child of the three: not as long as the em dash but longer than the hyphen. It gets its name from the fact that it’s as wide as a capital N. Here’s how to type it.
The en dash is less robust than the hyphen, appearing in 3 specific instances:
- Indicate range of numbers (e.g. pages 22 – 34, the 2014 – 15 school year, 50 – 60 apples)
- Attaches a prefix or suffix to an unhyphenated compound phrase (e.g. Seven Persons – based sausage company, pre – World War II poverty)
- Joins the names of two places (e.g. Edmonton – Calgary corridor, Vancouver – Honolulu flight)
There’s a reason the em dash ( — ) is so big: it means business. When you see an em dash, everyone stops to pay attention. Here’s how to type it.
The em dash is a parenthetical mark (like commas and parentheses), but unlike parentheses, which appear to downplay their contents, em dashes emphasize their content. Instead of whispering the parenthetical thought, they shout it.
Use em dashes to interrupt abruptly, when commas just wont do.
- One of the great things — and mark my words that there are many great things — about the London Road Neighbourhood is the treed canopies covering the streets.
- On your way home, pick up some cheese, oranges, milk, and chocolate — don’t even think about coming in the door without any chocolate.
Do you use these marks regularly? Let me know in the comments below.
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