Editing Basics





I love the dash – it is my favorite punctuation. But I like to write it as seen here – a hyphen with spacing on either side. This is terribly incorrect and not what I pass with clients when editing their work. But I like the looks of it and it is right there on my keyboard, easily accessed.

Hyphens, however, have a more specific uses than to look pretty on my  computer screen. Particularly to combine two words, creating compound words. Most compound words do not require a hyphen, and those that do really have no grammar rule to follow. Every expert has the same “non-answer”: consult a dictionary. (This begs the need for an entirely different post.) Examples of hyphenated words are:

  • The Tell-Tale Heart
  • mother-in-law
  • long-awaited
  • non-answer

Besides the hyphen, there are “true dashes”. The En Dash, the Em Dash. Both have keyboard shortcuts dependent upon your computer type that I advise you to investigate, learn, and use. However, with my Mac computer/operating system, I find it easiest to use the “insert” or “special characters” function from the drop-down menu.

The En Dash is so named because it is approximately the size of a typed letter n. It is a smidge longer than the hyphen and often confused as being a hyphen. But the En Dash is used to join words or numbers in place the word “to”, to note a span of time. It can also be used to join to compound phrases.

  • This year’s winter, an insane September–April.
  • Edgar Allan Poe lived from 1809–1849.
  • It’s an 8th grade–9th grade poetry competition.
  • The Minnesota–Wisconsin border is created by the St. Croix River.

The Em Dash is easy but unattractive and, quite frankly, lazy writing. Named, of course, because it is about the width of the letter m. I think it is ugly, hogging location and not using spaces on either side. But, alas, it is the correct way when making a quick transition or abrupt break in a sentence. Be mindful that this symbol can be easily over-used! When handwriting or typing in “lazy writing” mode, the Em Dash is the go-to punctuation, used in place of parentheses, commas, colons, semi-colons. Examples:

  • I advise my clients to format every type of dash and squiggle to one uniform Em Dash—which is what most publishers require.
  • While she did not like the dash, she was not suggesting it be removed—it was essential for the sentence structure.

This post is only a smattering of rules and instances where dashes can be used. I have left out:

  • The tilde, and similar swung dash styles, aka squiggle. I sign my emails like the following, and many more.
  • ~ Michelle
  • The horizontal bar, use at the start of a quote:
  • ―Be the change you wish to see in the world. 
    ~ Gandhi
  • The figure dash, used in phone numbers: 555‒867‒5309.

13 thoughts on “D-D-D-Dashes”

  1. I like the look of the em dash. I’m uncertain if due to my artistic background, or accustomed by reading, but the em dash looks quite fine to me. 🙂 I’ll take a hyphen with spaces in a list, or to set off two singular items. In phone numbers, I prefer spaces or dots.

  2. Hey MES, I really enjoy your blog…keep the entries coming. As an old typesetter I have just a couple of things to add. One correction: An En dash and and Em dash are roughly the width of a *capital* letter N or M in the current type size, not lower-case as noted. Also, En and Em dashes are sometimes referred to as a “nuttun” or a “muttun,” or “nut” or “mut” respectively. As you mentioned, there can be spaces around hyphens, Ens or Ems, or not. These are generally referred to as opened or closed. “Opened” with spaces, “closed” without. Occasionally, I have had clients use two hyphens in a row to break up a thought as opposed to an Em dash. I always thought this was ugly and made the switch (unless there’s a specific reason for it). After reading what I just posted, I realized that I really need to get out of the house more often. Have a good day.

    1. Hi Kevin!

      Yes, I originally had the double dash (–) example as a big no-no. It is incorrect and, as you said, ugly. I left it off because the post was getting too long. For that same reason, I didn’t expand into other names for the dashes.

      I’d always learned/read that En = n-size and Em = M-size or m-size (which take up the same space). I’ll have to look it up again!

      1. Ah! I’ve been wrong before, so it wouldn’t surprise if I was this time. 🙂 As I mentioned, I was a typesetter and proofreader, not an editor. Big difference! I think that typesetters can tell you when something is technically correct, but the information is not necessarily helpful. Editors are much more helpful. 🙂 Cheers!

      2. I don’t think it’s an issue of you being wrong, just different. If we know anything of English, it has variations on every rule. I’m familiar with m/n-sizes and find it more in publishing. Were you doing block typesetting?

        My go-to referencing is Oxford and Purdue, both of which say lower-case. As do other main grammar references: the Modern Language Association (MLA), the American Psychological Association (APA), the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Blue Book Grammar Book.

        Using Em Dashes and En Dashes Properly, By Suzanne Gilad from Copyediting and Proofreading For Dummies http://www.dummies.com/
        “Em dashes — so called because they are (at least historically) the width of the character m”
        “En dashes — dashes that are the width of the character n”

        Conversely, I did find one M/N example on an edu site: grammar.ccc.commnet.edu.
        “Modern word processors provide for two kinds of dashes: the regular dash or em dash (which is the same width as the letter “M,” — ) and the en dash (which is about half the width, the same as the letter “N,” – ).”

        The English language can sometimes seem to have an identity disorder! 🙂

  3. Dashes! They always screw me up to the point where I have rewritten sentences to avoid them. Glad to know that this is, apparently, a good way to go about things.

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