Hyphens and Dashes

Hyphens and dashes are two distinctly different punctuation marks and a proper understanding of each will avoid embarrassing mistakes in your writing.  Will anyone get MURDERED as a result of using the wrong one in the wrong place?  No, but their proper use is part of the process that makes a writer stand out as exceptional.  Use them erroneously and your publisher might just KILL your story without reading further.

There are actually three distinct types of dashes: one is the commonly used Hyphen, and the other two are called the En Dash and the Em Dash.  Let’s take a separate look at these for a better understanding of how and when to use them.

The Hyphen: This literary device, a short dash, is used in three areas of punctuation to link words or parts of words together.

They can be used to join compound words (like good-natured).  The joining can be between an adjective and a noun (sugar-free), between a noun and a participle (custom-built) and between an adjective and a participle (good-looking).  Modern literature has relaxed the use of hyphens a little and such connections are not utilized as often as they once were.  Now you’ll see words smashed together as one or simply used separately.

Hyphens also join prefixes to other words in such a way as to convey a specific meaning, as in re-cover meaning to cover over something as opposed to recover meaning to overcome some difficulty.

Lastly, hyphens show a word break, like at the end of a sentence when the word is broken into syllables and part remains on one line while the rest of the word goes into the following line.

Thus, hyphens only join words together and separate syllables.  When phrasing punctuation is needed, that’s when the other two, and longer, dashes are utilized.

The En Dash: This mark is used to express a range of values or a distance, and is often used in place of the word “to”.  We can express an age range (from 40 – 60) or a distance (from New York – California) by using such a dash.  It’s called the En dash because it takes the space of a lower case n in print.  Usually, your computer will convert double dashes to an En Dash when adding a space between the previous word and the dashes and a space before the next word.

The Em Dash: This punctuation mark is the most interesting because its use can create heightened drama.  For that reason it’s being used more often by modern fiction writers.  This type of dash is a mark of separation, not of words but of phrases and thoughts.  It’s used for three specific reasons—when something stronger than a comma is needed, when the writer wants punctuation less formal than a colon or when more relaxed punctuation than a set of parentheses is appropriate.  On most computers, it automatically comes up when double hyphens are used without spacing between the previous and following words.  It’s a longer dash and called the Em Dash because it takes up the spacing of a capital M in print.

This punctuation device is used when the writer wants extra emphasis on a phrase or part of a sentence.  The famous grammarian William Strunk, Jr. is credited with specifying the proper use of the Em Dash.  He said that it is used to indicate an abrupt stop or change in tone or thought (such as, “But I thought you’d—wait a minute, what are you doing?”), to insert a second thought, update or correction (such as, “I thought you’d be interested—but then you’re never interested in what I say.”) or to emphasize a dramatic pause (such as, “You said you’d come early—and you’re late!”).

In conclusion, the process of editing the written word is a painstaking process.  The proper use of punctuation is extremely important to enhancing your reputation as a GREAT WRITER.

Thoughts?  Comments?  I’d love to hear them!

About James J. Murray, Fiction Writer

With experience in both pharmaceutical manufacturing and clinical patient management, medications and their impact on one’s quality of life have been my expertise. My secret passion of murder and mayhem, however, is a whole other matter. I’ve always loved reading murder mysteries and thrillers, and longed to weave such tales of my own. Drawing on my clinical expertise as a pharmacist and my infatuation with the lethal effects of drugs, my tales of murder, mayhem and medicine will have you looking over your shoulder and suspicious of anything in your medicine cabinet.
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10 Responses to Hyphens and Dashes

  1. James M

    Great work! Thanks. You’ve put into words what many of us do instinctively, and sometimes incorrectly. A useful reminder — for some of us — of what to do correctly. Now for . . . and . . . .
    James O

  2. Reblogged this on EditorEtc and commented:
    Eliminating confusion on hyphens & dashes, thanks James!

  3. Pingback: My buddy James Murrays defines something that makes us all nuts, I think…hyphens vs. dashes…:) « Thomas Rydder

  4. LOL Thanks, James, for your comments.

  5. Jim,
    Very informative. Somehow, going to a good high school and getting two college degrees, none of this was ever explained to me. This blog should be required reading for every high school English teacher in the US.

  6. Unless there is something I’m doing wrongly, my apple mac doesn’t do these dashes automatically. I’ve been trying but my editor had to fix them all for me.

  7. Alejandro says:

    Thanks for your explanation!

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