Well, aren’t you dashing!

Well, I’m sure you’ve put your best frock on for this blog post but I’m not here to compliment you!

Instead, we’re going to look at all the different dashes and lines on your page, what the differences are and when you might use them.

We’ll start with the most used line: the hyphen.

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These little lines can be used a variety of ways. You’ll see a lot of them hanging around at the end of lines, where a word was too long to fit. These are called soft hyphens and are placed to show where a word continues onto the next line.

This isn’t done randomly and thought needs to be given to the positioning of these lines. The New Oxford Spelling Dictionary, which I talk about in this blog post, shows where words are best separated to avoid any confusion for the reader.

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In Microsoft Word’s package you can tell the computer where you’d like a soft hyphen to go. It’s called the optional hyphen and if you key [Ctrl]+[-] you can insert a soft hyphen. You might not see it unless you need it but you can check it’s there by displaying the formatting marks. You see a [¬] symbol to show where, if needed, a soft hyphen will be placed.

We’ve had soft hyphens so, naturally hard hyphens come next.

These are used to make compound words: a well-known story, an up-to-date record or a circus fire-eater.

Actually, that last example shows another reason why you might hyphenate. As English continues to evolve, words that were once joined with a hyphen (air-raid) have become two words (air raid) or become smashed together to make just one word (air-stream has become airstream).

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But, fire-eater would look odd as “fireeater” because of that double e in the middle so, along with words like drip-proof and part-time, the hyphen is great at separating the parts of the word.

Numbers and points of the compass can be made using hyphens: thirty-three, twenty-first, a south-easterly direction.

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Some prefixes and even fewer suffixes get joined with hyphens, too: antibodies are prevalent at the moment but you need hyphens for re-entry (that double e problem again) ex-directory and bell-like (another tricky double).

You might also use a hyphen to indicate someone’s stammer or a pause in speech: “I-I-thought I saw a-a- g-g-g-ghost!”

There’s a few other uses for hyphens but we’re really digging into the nitty-gritty…

When it comes to dashes, there are two sizes: en rule and em rule.

They are so called because they are the length of the “N” and “M” characters. We’ll start with the en rule.

In Word, you’ll need to key [Ctrl]+[Num -] to print a en rule dash.

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Do this to show a range, particularly in numbers, “pages 23–99”, or in days, “he worked Monday–Wednesday”.

It might be that you want to add additional information into your text, like this bit here between the commas, but you really want it to stand out or be separate from the main sentence. One way to do that – you’ll note I say one way – is to use spaced en rule hyphens.

The other way you might choose to do that is with em rules.

So you could have information in a sentence—then add some more—just like this. To do that, you need to key [Ctrl]+[Alt]+[Num -] in Word. Notice also that there are no spaces this time.

Another use for the em rule is to show trailing off in dialogue: “This post is so boring, I’m just so—” the cat fell asleep.

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This is not a comprehensive and exhaustive list of when to use these dashes and hyphens. For further reading, I’d suggest New Hart’s Rules or a similar style guide and consult an editor before publishing!

That’s enough from me. I’m going to — off…

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Published by Nick Taylor | Editor & Proofreader

Fiction editor and proofreader.

4 thoughts on “Well, aren’t you dashing!

  1. This was really enlightening, thank you! Did you know that Catalans use a flying dot (I don’t know what it’s proper name is but maybe you do?) instead of a hyphen to separate double consonants: as in Paral·lel? Just thought that was interesting too!

    Liked by 1 person

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