Hey, welcome back for another installation in my writing advice articles. 😎
As an amateur writer, I often wondered how dashes and hyphens functioned. At first, I assumed they joined words together. It wasn’t until I delved into the matter that I realized there are multiple variants of these critters, each with a specialized function in writing. Let’s take a look at each in turn.
The function of hyphens is to connect two or more words that are related, usually pairs that work as one word; e.g., two-headed, half-human, semi-conscious, long-term, up-to-date, free-for-all. The hyphen serves as the glue that welds the pairing vocabulary, forming a compound phrase. This works for nouns, verbs, and adjectives. You can also use hyphens to punctuate character stuttering. Never use a hyphen in place of an en dash or em dash. We’ll discuss that more below. Be on the lookout for closed or open compounds, as these do not need a hyphen; words such as:
Closed: typewriter, skyscraper, notebook, fireman.
Open: lounge chair, living room, real estate.
Quite often a compound modifier is hyphenated if it comes before a noun it modifies, but not after. The reason is for added clarity on what’s being modified. For example:
Incorrect: Let’s head to that run down church.
Correct: Let’s head to that run-down church.
Other examples for hyphen usage are:
- With the vocabulary low/high: low-income, high-interest.
- With fractions: one-third, one-half, one-tenth.
- With prefixes ex, self, all: ex-wife, self-employed, all-powerful.
- With numbers: second-century, third-floor, thirty-minute, ninety-four, fifty-one, one hundred and fifty-five.
Mastering hyphens can be tricky. I encourage my readers to check out that Grammarly article I linked above for more examples on when to use this symbol.
An en dash(–) is longer than a hyphen(-), but shorter than an em dash(—). While simpler than hyphens, en dashes find less use in modern writing. The function of this critter is to establish a range, whether by numbers, distance, or parties of a spectrum such as in a versus debate or business partnership.
Here are some examples:
- Number range: 10–50 hours, 3000–6000 days, 15–30 people.
- Distance range: Chicago–New York flight, Earth–Moon voyage.
- Opposing parties: Clinton–Gore debate, Right–Left convention.
- Partnership: Ralph–Heath Company, Jones–Mary Inc.
Here’s where the fun starts. An em dash(—) is a versatile symbol. This tool separates phrases and clauses in a sentence. They are similar to commas, parenthesis, and semicolons. Em dashes symbolize a pause in a thought—like I did here—, perhaps informally, while parenthesis is more formal. You could take a regular sentence and insert a pair of em dashes somewhere betwixt as in the sentence above. Otherwise, for a single break, use only one em dash—to avoid confusion of course. Em dashes can also substitute for colons—or used in a list. Let’s break down the uses for em dashes:
- An em dash is a break in written thought—useful for fixing incomplete sentences.
- Two em dashes are an insertion for additional information that could be—depending on the writer’s situation—excluded.
- An em dash can be substituted for a comma, colon, semicolon, parenthesis, bullet point, and much more.
Again, I advise my readers to check out the hyperlinked articles above for more examples. Em dashes—at first—seem confusing, but once mastered, the versatility of this tool cannot be underestimated. Personally, I enjoy using it a lot more than I did a few years ago. That said, using more than two em dashes—for the sake of clarity—in a sentence is not recommended.
Some people represent em dashes with spaces, others with three hyphens joined. Whatever method you use, be sure to let the reader know.
Thank you for reading, and I hope this article helped with whatever creative projects you harbor. Love and gratitude. 😀
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