5 things your editor wants you to know about hyphens and dashes

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Oh boy, I love a punctuation chat!

(Hey now, don’t click away so fast. You’re the one who signed up to hear from an editor every month.)

Here’s why, though: I like talking about punctuation because it kind of drives every writer and editor out of their stinkin’ minds.

Punctuation is sort of our thing as word nerds. We love to declare our passion for a particular arrangement of the comma or semicolon. Alas, like any heated romance, these lingual love affairs are bound to leave us cold and confused.

Usage for even tried-and-true marks is ever-changing (see: the meaning of periods in a text message). There’s almost no hope of a stable relationship with an outsider like the en dash.

Especially when its big brother, the em dash, always steals the spotlight. And its third cousin twice removed, the hyphen, likes to pop in, like are you even part of this family?

But I’m all for an underdog. So let’s get to know these commonly conflated marks as well as we can and see if we can’t make a little room for them in our lives.

5 things your editor wants you to know about hyphens and dashes

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1. What’s an em dash vs. en dash vs. hyphen?

Em dash is the long one (—). It’s about the width of the letter “M” on a typewriter. Use it to break up parts of a long sentence or make a clause stand out, e.g.: The dash — if done right — lets your aside pack a punch without interrupting the flow.

En dash is the medium one (–). It’s about the width of the letter “N” on a typewriter. Use it sparingly. It’s NOT interchangeable with an em dash. Consult your publication, company or industry style guide for when to use an en dash, but these are common:

  • Indicate a range, e.g. Aug. 27–29 or 5–10 minutes or Monday–Friday.

  • In place of a hyphen to connect a prefix to an open compound, e.g. pre–Kim Kardashian

Hyphen is the short one (-). It’s the one on the minus key on the keyboard. Use it for compound words, e.g. full-time job.

2. How do you type an em dash or an en dash?

The trickiest hurdle to using en dashes and em dashes is figuring out how to type them — they don’t exist on a typical U.S. English keyboard.

You can use a double hyphen (--) in place of a dash, but it’s ugly, outdated and unspecific. Instead, type your dashes like a pro:

  • How to type an em dash on Mac: shift + option + minus/hyphen

  • How to type an em dash on PC: Ctrl + Alt + minus/hyphen

  • How to type an en dash on Mac: opt + minus/hyphen

  • How to type an en dash on PC: Ctrl + minus/hyphen

On your phone, press and hold the hyphen key to bring up more dash options.

3. Which style guides use which marks?

Choosing when to use dashes and hyphens is a personal question on par with choosing which section of an all-you-can-eat-buffet to start on.*

Your editor is king on this one. Follow their chosen style guide or ask their preference if it’s not clear.

A few style guide differences to keep in mind:

  • AP Stylebook (journalism, blogging) puts spaces around an em dash — like that. Some publications -- with outdated word processors -- prefer a double hyphen as an em dash.

  • The Chicago Manual of Style (some academia, most book publishing) uses no spaces around an em dash—like this claustrophobic string of words.

  • AP Stylebook doesn’t use an en dash at all. It uses a hyphen to indicate ranges where CMOS uses the en dash.

  • Hyphens are a giant question mark and ever-changing (see below). Consult your updated style guide frequently, and pick your battles with your editor wisely.

*Mashed potatoes, mac ‘n’ cheese and pizza on the first plate. Salad bar second trip to get it out of the way. Desserts on the third trip to make sure you have room. If you’ve got a fourth trip in you, go nuts on the taco bar.

4. When do you need a hyphen?

“Do I need a hyphen here?” is one of the most common questions an editor hears, second only to “Do I need a comma here?”

Same answer for both, usually: Maybe?

The rule of thumb is to use a hyphen to connect compound words when you use them as a modifier before a noun — like in full-time job. Use no hyphen if the modifier comes after a noun: The job is full time.

But the specifics are always changing and highly subject to taste.

AP has been dropping hyphens like hot potatoes for years. Its general guidance, as of 2019, is to leave the hyphen out if a compound is commonly recognized, use it if it isn’t. 

  • Chocolate chip cookie = no hyphen.

  • French-speaking people = hyphen.

Don’t get too caught up in rightness. Always choose for clarity. Do you reasonably think a reader might get confused about whether a cookie is filled with chocolate chips, or is made of chocolate and filled with — who knows?! — computer chips? Potato chips?

Another one to keep an eye on: Technology terms. 

We regularly hyphenate nouns when tech is new, then drop the hyphen as they become commonplace — e.g. e-mail, web-site and smart-phone.

What about unwieldy modifiers like all-you-can-eat buffet or stay-in-and-order-Pad-Thai-and-drink-Sunny-D kinda night? Ask your editor.

5. When do you need an em dash?

The rules for using an em dash are pretty clear and consistent. But you probably use too many. 

Most writers use too many.

(I use too many. I’m working on it.)

It’s such a useful piece of punctuation — it’s tempting to stick it everywhere. It can replace ignorable parentheses — so your reader doesn’t skim over your clever asides — and it can add a punch to your most emphatic ideas — when used wisely.

But it can also muddle your writing. That paragraph is a rough road to follow, isn’t it?

Em dashes are great for letting your thoughts flow in a first draft. During your self-editing run (you do a self-editing run, right??), cut them where you can. Periods, commas and conjunctions are useful alternatives.

Further reading

🧡 AP changes guidance on the hyphen. Again. (Poynter): This September 2019 update from the AP Stylebook is a ripe example of the evolution of punctuation. It also shows how AP works with its member editors to form guidance that makes sense to the people who use it and read it.

💚 The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash (Slate): Journalist Noreen Malone thinks we’ve gone a bit too far with em dashes. She makes her point in this eloquent piece — brilliantly, annoyingly, littered with disruptive em dashes.

💜 How to Type an Em Dash — and When to Use One In Your Writing (The Write Life): TWL’s Jamie Cattanach answers every question you’ve ever had about using this magnificent mark in your writing.

💙 When do you need to use a hyphen for compound words? (APA Style Blog): Here’s guidance from the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association on using hyphens. Tellingly, it lists no rules, only “general principles.”

💛 Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes (CMOS Online): An editor from the Chicago Manual of Style helps you remember how to use each by relating the work each one does to the length of the mark.

Next month

Off next month for the holidays 🛀

I’ll be busy in December listening to Hanson’s 1997 Christmas album Snowed In.

Take time to rest and reset in your way, set your intentions for the year to come — and peruse the archives if you need a Notes fix :)

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