Pesky things, dashes. They creep in at the oddest moments, and if you’re not careful, end up making your work look like some barmy kind of Morse code.
First of all, there’s the hyphen. Now, here’s the thing: hyphens are going out of fashion. There are those who swear by them and those who abhor them. Email or e–mail? Co–operation or cooperation? Go with house style or check the dictionary, or use your own judgement; but be consistent.
Consider, if you will, Clive Ffordingley–Haggis, the red-haired squire of North Devonshire, who carries a double–barrelled shotgun, and avoids the built–up areas of the village when he rides out.
red–haired is a compound adjective. It shows that he is not a red, haired squire, but the Devonshire squire who has red hair.
Ffordingley–Haggis is a name made up of two parts joined by a hyphen.
Both double–barrelled and built–up are as given in the OED.
A hyphen can also be used when you need to spread a word across two lines, rather than leave a large gap. Your word processor can be told to do this for you, or you can do it yourself, but be careful where you split the word so that it makes sense.
A dash, however, is not there to make one word out of two; on the contrary, it is there to separate. If you’re emailing a friend – as we all do – you probably chuck dashes in where brackets/parentheses would more usually appear. We use them to insert comments – the sort of interruption that probably doesn’t need to be there at all – into the middle of otherwise perfectly good sentences.
There are reasons to use dashes: but even if you know what those reasons are, you then have to choose what sort of dash to add.
There are two lengths of dash: the em and the en. Word, not altogether helpfully, will make up its own mind how long your dash should be, so it may be better to choose it for yourself.
The em dash — is a line that covers the same space as the letter m on your page: you can find it under Symbols in Word. You can create it with ctrl+alt+Num- (the minus on your number keypad). It is used with no spacing before and after—like this.
The en dash – is a line that covers the same space as the letter n. It is usually used with a space before and after – like this. It’s created with ctrl+Num-
It’s easy to over-dash. When dashes denote an interruption or insertion, they could be replaced (in some circumstances) with parentheses; but an excess of those on your page is not only just as annoying as a rash of dashes but also amateurish. If the part that’s being sectioned off could be cut out altogether, do so, thereby solving the problem. If, however, the words forming the insertion are there to underline a point – as they should be – then dashes are the marks to use.
Which you choose is up to you. Fashion raises its head once again and suggests that the em dash is becoming passé in the UK but not in the US. The thing is to make sure that you use your favourite properly: no spaces with the em dash – except when it’s being used to mark a missing word, as in the — of Devonshire, and nearly always spaces with the en dash.
Exceptions to the en dash space rule:
if you wish to express a range or sequence, as in 35–40, 2015–16, you use the en dash with no spacing;
where two people’s names are linked by an implied and, as in a Holmes–Watson mystery;
in pairs of words linked by to, as in the Paddington–Penzance train.
You can use either kind to denote missing letters: the Duke of D— stayed at the R— Hotel, or The Duke of De – – – shire, but only the spaced em dash to mark a complete missing word, as noted above.
If you break off a line of dialogue, always use the em dash.
‘What do you mean, you don’t—‘
‘Of course I don’t! This is the first I’ve heard of the idea,’ Ffordingley–Haggis shrugged.
‘I knew—as soon as I saw you, I knew—‘
‘I knew – as soon as I saw you, I knew—‘
‘I knew!—as soon as I saw you, I knew!—‘ where the exclamation mark is permitted before the dash, whichever one you use, but no other mark is allowed there. There is no capital after a dash, as in as soon as I saw you, even if it starts a new sentence, unless it’s a proper name.
‘Knew what, for crying out loud?’ Ffordingley–Haggis pulled off his cap, and ran his hand through his luxuriant mahogany locks.
‘That’s it—that’s the clue! It’s the hair, of course! Dash it all—you’re my father!’
‘That’s it – that’s the clue! It’s the hair, of course! Dash it all – you’re my father!’
Ffordingley–Haggis Junior has had a revelation – though whether it’s the red hair or a red herring is another story entirely.