The Beauty of the Dashes

By March 8, 2010 culture, language 21 Comments

March 4 was National Grammar Day. I sure hope you didn’t miss it! I see this holiday as a convivial celebration of everything language related. In last week’s post honoring the day, I made mention of the differing dashes, so I inserted a poll into that post asking this all-pertinent question: Do you know your dashes?

The poll results (at the time of this posting) were overwhelmingly in the negative with 57 percent of respondents answering no (and by overwhelmingly, I mean it outnumbered the yes responses by 13 percent . . . which was really just one vote). Feel free to add your vote to the poll before reading on . . .

I cannot leave those four respondents hanging in the mystery of the dashes, so here is a mini tutorial on the beauty of the dashes based on the Chicago Manual of Style, from which some of the following examples were drawn.

May your dashes always be the proper length.


– The Hyphen

  • He’s the smallest of the dashes.
  • Unlike the other dashes, he has his own key on the keyboard.
  • He’s the social one, as he typically links words in partnership to create compound words. For example: This is a simple, matter-of-fact approach to understanding the dashes.

– The En Dash (N Dash)

  • The medium-sized, multipurpose dash; so-named because he’s the size of the letter N (this harkens back to typesetting days).
  • He’s like a super-hyphen, to be used when combining open compounds. For example: the post–World War II years, a nursing home–home care policy.
  • He can also be translated as through or up to and including when used in the midst of copy. For example: Green Bay beat Denver 31–24; In Genesis 6:13–22 we find God’s instructions to Noah.
  • However, do not use the en dash with from; for example: She was in college from 1998 to 2002.
  • Created using multiple keys:
    • for Mac: press Option + Hyphen
    • for PC: press Control + the Hyphen on the Number Pad

— The Em Dash (M Dash)

  • The largest of the dashes; so-named because she’s the size of the letter M (this harkens back to typesetting days).
  • There should be no spaces before or after this dash.
  • She is used to insert an additional thought in running paragraph text, to further define the idea preceding the dash. For example: How I love the em dash—the longest of the dashes—for it allows me to expand my thoughts with ease!
  • Created using multiple keys:
    • for Mac: press Shift + Option + Hyphen
    • for PC: press Control + Alt + the Hyphen on the Number Pad
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