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The Secret Life of Dashes

As an editor and proofreader, I spend a lot of time hyphen-hunting. I look for hyphens lurking in places where en dashes and em dashes should live. I burrow into the empty places where a hyphen has been dispossessed of its rightful place.

But what is the rightful place of a hyphen, and what the blue blazes is an en dash or, for the matter of that, the em variety?

I’m so glad you asked.

The hyphen  is used to combine words into compound modifiers (basically, a multi-word adjective which describes the following noun), or to add prefixes to terms for clarity. The absence of a hyphen can sometimes change the meaning of a sentence.

  • The film is about a wild-bear hunter.

(That is, it’s about the hunter of wild bears, not a wild hunter who chases bears).

  • I’m a fan of the well-loved author, Neil Gaimain.
  • Students benefit from one-on-one time.

In an odd little quirk of English (which is mostly made up of odd quirks, let’s face it) when a compound modifier comes after the noun it describes, the hyphen usually makes a discreet exit.

  • The film is about the hunter of wild bears.
  • I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman, the well loved author.

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

  • Golf is sometimes played with a brightly coloured ball.
  • Dr John Watson is a very patient man.

Hyphens can also be used to ensure clarity, particularly with words that have a different meaning if the hyphen is left out!

  • I resent your tone! I definitely re-sent the email, as requested!
  • I’m resigned to the fact that this contract must be re-signed.

The hyphen is subject to a number of other rules, all of which you can discover at places like Purdue University’s handy OWL site and the Australian Government Style Manual.

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 and rock-climbing) for the brave and easily bored.
  • Canberra’s environment offers outdoor activities – bushwalking, bird-watching and rock-climbing – for the brave and easily bored.

(I didn’t much enjoy my time living in Canberra, which may be obvious.)

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 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 and rock-climbing—for the brave and easily bored.

This is a very broad guide and is certainly not definitive. Importantly, the use of en and em dashes might vary depending on the style guide for your company/publisher too – so see if yours has a style manual, and let that be your dashing guide.

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