The Write Stuff September 2021 Volume 17 Issue 9

Those darn dashes

They’re small but mighty, and many people don’t use them correctly. I’ve covered the issue of dashes before — hyphens, en dashes and em dashes — but the topic is worth further focus.

Hyphens should be used for one reason only: in hyphenated compound words. Thus, words like up-to-date, state-of-the-art, two-fold, etc. warrant hyphens. They shouldn’t be used anywhere else.

En Dashes
An en dash — approximately the length of the letter n — is like the mama bear, so to speak, longer than the hyphen (baby bear) and shorter than the em dash (papa bear). It is used for one reason: to mark ranges. Thus, 7–9 p.m., Monday–Friday, etc. warrant en dashes. (On a Mac, they’re made by hitting the Option key + the dash key.)

Em Dashes
An em dash — approximately the length of the letter m — is used to separate extra information as I just did or mark a break in a sentence — like this. AP style leaves spaces on either side; Chicago style does not. (On a Mac, they’re made by hitting the Shift and Option keys + the dash key.)

It’s worth noting that an em dash and an ellipsis (…) aren’t interchangeable. The latter should be used to denote missing text in quoted material, or in dialogue to show a pause in a character’s speech.

It’s also worth noting that using an em dash instead of commas or parentheses in the middle of a sentence can enhance readability. It’s an excellent way to emphasize a phrase.

Focus on clarity

A modifier shouldn’t be separated from the word it modifies, or your sentence can end up being confusing or ambiguous.

Wrong: I wore high heels to my interview, which accidentally got soaked in a puddle.

Right: I wore high heels — which accidentally got soaked in a puddle — to my interview.

Also right: I wore high heels to my interview, but they accidentally got soaked in a puddle.

‘Tis the season

We refer to three of the four seasons by one name only: spring, summer and winter. Ever wonder why fall is sometimes referred to as autumn?

Both words are used interchangeably in American and British English, but fall occurs more often on this side of the pond. Autumn is considered the more formal name for the season.

Whatever you call it, it’s time for all things pumpkin.

Published On: September 20th, 2021 / Categories: 2021 /

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