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    Dash It All! Creating the Right Dash

    Thursday, October 22, 2009

    Once upon a time, in the days of typewriters, a dash was a dash and a hyphen was a hyphen, and they both knew their place. A simple tap of a key and a hyphen appeared to divide syllables; two taps of the same key made a dash to separate phrases or clauses.

    With advances in desktop publishing, however, every personal computer now provides at least three different types of dash-related punctuation: the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. Here's a quick guide to these punctuation pretties.

    The hyphen is still used to form compound words and to divide syllables, and your word processor may be set to do so automatically when needed (at the end of a line of text, for example).

    The en dash, so called because it is the width of the typed "n," is used between numbers. It replaces the word "to," as in the sentence We drove 10-15 miles to get there. The en dash is also appropriately used as a minus sign before a number; however, if your program offers a separate minus sign, use it instead. Again, your word processor may automatically convert a hyphen to an en dash between numbers. If not, or if you need to use the en dash as a minus sign, check your program for an "Insert -> Symbol" function or similar command.

    The em dash, which is the width of a letter "m," is used to set off an idea or added information. Here are examples of three common uses.

    The point of a nature walk is simple - to experience nature. (Used for Emphasis)
    My accountant - Susan Cowl - will have to look at the figures. (Used for Added information)
    Fast, cheap, and good - in business, you can choose any two, but not all three. (Sets off an Introductory series)

    The em dash can also be used to indicate interrupted speech, as in this example: Now it's time - finally - to introduce our next speakers, who together - excuse me? They aren't here? Remember that you will rarely encounter this particular use of the dash in formal business writing.

    Most word processors will automatically create an em dash when you type two hyphens in a row. If not, use the "Insert -> Symbol" function instead.

    A Word About Spacing
    In general, do not insert a space before or after an en or em dash. However, it is common for some publishers to use a "space, en dash, space" sequence instead of an em dash. (UpWrite Press uses a "space, hyphen, space" sequence in online posts such as this one to avoid display problems in some RSS feeds.) Follow your own company guidelines in this regard.

    You can learn more about dashes beginning on page 196 in Write for Business: A Compact Guide to Writing and Communicating in the Workplace, just one of the many helpful business writing materials from UpWrite Press.

    - Joyce Lee