Before I became an editor, I had only vaguely noticed that some dashes were longer than others. I thought it was perhaps a particular type of font, or just that some publishers liked longer lines and some liked shorter ones. Then I became an editor and, in the course of training, duly became privy to the arcane laws of dashes.
There are three different types, they all have different uses, and if you don’t use them in the right place your editor (whom you’ve hired at great expense) will have to spend time fixing them, when they could be helping you with more important facets of your book.
Here’s a brief recap on using each type:
When most people think of dashes, they first think of hyphens, those little micro dashes that join words together. Strictly, they’re not even “dashes”. They should just be called hyphens. Most computer keyboards have a dedicated key for the hyphen (usually at the end of the line of numerals along the top of the keyboard). Hyphens have a very specific use, which is … drum-roll … hyphenation. They make compound words and phrases out of shorter words, so machine-gun, or drip-proof. These are called hard hyphens. They’re the type of hyphen that asks you, “You lookin’ at me?”, and have spider-web tattoos on their necks.
Soft hyphens are those that merely indicate that the word continues on the next line. The rules of what to hyphenate and when constitute pages of editorial handbooks, and could be an entire post in themselves (there’s an idea), but trusty Word will highlight words or phrases that it thinks should be hyphenated, and it usually gets it right. As the language evolves, modern thinking is to use fewer hyphens, and words that were once hyphenated now tend to run together, as in airstream, or hitchhiker. So, be cool with the hyphens.
En-dash (or en rule in British English)
The en-dash is a slightly longer line than a hyphen, usually about double the length. This is largely another “joining” mark. There’s not usually a dedicated key on a computer keyboard, but you can generate an en-dash on most computers simply by typing one word, a space, a hyphen, another space and then another word. If you watch carefully, the hyphen you typed will suddenly stretch into an en-dash, like Pinnochio’s nose. Alternatively, hold down the Alt key and type 0150 on the keypad.
Use the en-dash when you’re indicating a range of numbers, for example, “the Second World War, 1939–1945” or a relation between two otherwise unconnected words, “the Mayweather–McGregor fight”, or “the London–Istanbul train”. In this latter sense it’s used as a replacement for “and” or “to”.
In British English, some publishers use a spaced en-dash for parentheses, as in “The princess – she had been awake half the night – came downstairs in a terrible temper”, and in instances of interrupted dialogue, “I tripped on the bottom stair” – she stifled a giggle – “and landed right on top of the prince.”
Em-dash (or em rule)
The Big Daddy of dashes, the em-dash is generally twice as long again as the en-dash. The sure-fire way of creating an em-dash is to use Alt and 0151 on the numeric keypad. US publishers (and the Oxford University Press in the UK) choose to use closed-up em-dashes (em-dashes without any spaces) where other UK publishers might use spaced en-dashes. So in the above example, “The princess—she had been awake half the night—came downstairs in a terrible temper.” and “I tripped on the bottom stair”—she stifled a giggle—“and landed right on top of the prince.”
You might want to emphasize the end of a sentence. “There was one thing, and one thing alone, that interested Billy—guns.” Here the em-dash is acting like a colon. Many writers feel awkward using colons and semi-colons, and here an em-dash feels perhaps less formal.
Em dashes can also be used to signify the omission of an entire word, or part of a word. “Baby J— was rescued by emergency services and is now living with foster parents”.
Dashing through the snow…
So there you have it, a quick recap on the types of dashes as used in fiction (there are slightly different styles for some academic and newspaper writing). Generally, hyphens are used to link words to make other words or phrases. En-dashes are generally used to indicate ranges, or to act as a substitute in word pairings for “to” and “and”. In British English, en-dashes with spaces either side are used to denote a change of direction within a sentence, taking the place of a pair of commas or parentheses (in US English, em-dashes closed up to their surrounding words fulfill the same function). Em dashes can also be used for emphasis, and they can also indicate missing words. There are many other small differences, and the placement of dashes, particularly in dialogue, is often troublesome.
Ask any questions in the comments below and I’ll attempt to answer them.
A version of this post appeared in the ALLi blog in January.