English As She Is Writ - part eleven

Dashing about

There are, would you believe, no less than three types of dash. Here they are:

the hyphen ‑
the en dash –
the em dash —

As you can see, they differ only in length, the hyphen being the shortest and the em dash the longest.

The en dash has several uses in informal writing, and a few specific uses. You will be relieved to hear that in practice you rarely have to consider the em dash. I will write about them later, once I’ve dealt with the hyphen.

Most computer, tablet and phone keyboards allow for only one dash and, thank goodness, it’s usually the hyphen. (When using word processing software such as Microsoft’s Word it is usually possible to find ways to specify the hyphen, the en dash and the em dash; furthermore the latest iterations of such software often, automatically, and usually correctly, will decide for you whether a hyphen or an en dash is appropriate.)

For now, though: the hyphen.

The hyphen

The hyphen is the dash of joining: it brings words together.

It is used frequently in written English but it has only two formal functions:

  • to join the components of composite words
  • to create compound adjectives and some compound adverbial phrases

Unfortunately both of these uses have areas of ambiguity, and to quite a large extent how (and how often) you use the hyphen will be a matter of preference and judgement.

Me, I like the hyphen. I think it often adds clarity and prevents misunderstanding. The following guidance, therefore, must be understood as the advice of a hyphenophile.

The joining of composite words

In English words often find themselves in pairings. Some have not been together very long (thrash metal, girl power, motor vehicle); others have been linked long enough to gain a hyphen (crash-helmet, pot-plant, dining-room); and eventually some become a single word (waistcoat, pitchfork, motorway). Unfortunately there is no rule, except that more words are hyphenated than you think. And dictionaries differ in their opinions. All you can do is to bear in mind that composite words often have hyphens, and look them up in a dictionary.

My advice is: if in any doubt, put in a hyphen. It won’t do any harm, and it might do some good.

English is a highly malleable language, and nouns frequently find themselves acting as adjectives. The making of compound adjectives is discussed below, but here we’re in the liminal zone where paired nouns take on the role of adjectives. If we take the expression ‘girl power’ as an example, we can see that in many contexts this is a noun: ‘the Spice Girls were early exponents of what came to be known as girl power’. But in the sentence ‘All Saints’ Never Ever was the first girl power ballad’ there is ambiguity because the words girl and power, both nouns, are clearly intended to be understood as adjectives. Are we to understand that Never Ever was the first ballad to convey the idea of girl power? Or was it the first power ballad by a girl group? To clarify the meaning I would write the sentence like this: ‘All Saints’ Never Ever was the first girl-power ballad.’ That little hyphen does a lot of work.

Compound adjectives (and some compound adverbial phrases)

The advice is:   

  • when a compound adjective sits before the noun it describes, it requires a hyphen; when it sits after the noun the hyphen is not required
  • when an adverbial phrase is used as an adjective it is not hyphenated unless it is ambiguous (for instance adverbial phrases beginning with ‘well’ and ‘ill’), in which case a hyphen is required but only before the noun.

I know. That all sounds terribly dry and complex. I’ll present some examples and it will all become wonderfully clear.

Compound adjectives

  • This is the best-known example. Of all the examples, it is the best known.
  • She wore a light-brown coat. Her coat was light brown.
  • I was in a class of four-year-old children. The children were four years old.
  • Henry VIII was a sixteenth-century monarch. He reigned in the sixteenth century.
  • He is an out-of-work actor. But she is rarely out of work.

Adverbial adjectives

  • I entered a brightly lit room. The room was brightly lit.
  • It was an efficiently run business. The business was efficiently run.
  • It was an ill-conceived idea. The idea was ill conceived.
  • He was a well-brought-up young man. He had been well brought up.

I hope you can see that in each of the examples above the hyphen serves to reduce ambiguity. If written ‘She wore a light brown coat’ the sentence is ambiguous: is this a light coat of a brown colour, or a coat of a light-brown colour? The hyphen makes it clear that the latter meaning is intended. If I write ‘I was in a class of four year old children’ the reader has no way of knowing whether there were four children, each of them a year old, or an unspecified number of four-year-old children; the hyphens resolve the question.

You might argue that there is no possible ambiguity in the phrase ‘sixteenth century monarch’ and that therefore a hyphen is unnecessary. I would reply: yeah, but let’s put one in anyway, just to be sure. What’s the harm? I don’t know what a ‘century monarch’ is, but in the absence of a hyphen a reader might conclude that Henry VIII was the sixteenth of the century monarchs.

As you can see, when compound adjectives appear after the noun to which they relate, their meaning is clear without the writer having to resort to hyphens.

Adjectival phrases that include an adverb (for instance ‘brightly lit’) rarely need to be hyphenated even when placed before the noun. However there are a few common words that can function as either adverb or adjective. In the exclamation ‘Well done!’ the word well is an adverb; in a sign directing you to the Well Woman Clinic it’s an adjective. ‘That mutt sure is one ill dog’ has the word ill as adjective; ‘ill met by moonlight’ – adverb. I recommend that when using one of these words in an adjectival phrase before a noun, hyphenate – as in the examples above. It just makes your meaning crystal clear.

As the hyphen is the dash of joining, it is the dash to use when you want to link together words that perhaps are not usually regarded as pairs. You might, for instance, want to discuss a new Goth-retro fashion, or the impossibility of a dog-jellyfish hybrid. The hyphen is the man for the job.

Other dash-related topics

It is common to use dashes at the beginning and end of a parenthetical word, phrase or clause – for example, like this – where one might just as easily use a pair of brackets or a pair of commas. A dash may also be used in place of a colon, in informal text – like this! And occasionally you will find a dash used to indicate that speech or a thought process has just suddenly – . Microsoft Word has decided that in these situations I should use en dashes, and I agree with Microsoft that en dashes seem appropriate. Using dashes in this way is rather slapdash (pun intended), but I do it; everyone does it; and as far as I can see it doesn’t much matter which form of dash one uses. However when using dashes in any of these ways, make sure you place a space on each side of each dash: this makes it clear that you’re not using either of the dashes to join words together or (as I’ll explain when I get to en dashes) to indicate a spread of time or distance.

There is one other minor issue to deal with. Hyphens or en dashes are sometimes used, in typeset texts, at the end of a line, to indicate that a word has been split and is continued on the next line. Breaking words makes life difficult for the reader and should be avoided. And so you shouldn’t have to use dashes in this way. Right-justified text (ie text that makes a straight line down the right margin) is increasingly old fashioned; ‘ragged right’ text, as typesetters call it, is now the norm, and makes the breaking of words unnecessary.

The en dash

General situations in which the en dash can be used are described above. In addition the en dash has certain specific uses, as follows.

The en dash is perhaps best thought of as the dash that indicates separation, or difference, or a span of time or distance. It serves a function that is almost the opposite of the hyphen, which is the dash of combination.

While the hyphen is used to join together words that combine to help each other towards a meaning, the en dash is used to link words with different meanings. It is also used to indicate a gap, for instance in years, or in the pages of a book.

The following examples will I hope demonstrate how to use the en dash.

  • red–green colourblind, with an en dash, but blue-green eyes, with a hyphen. (The former indicates that the colour blindness affects both red and green, whereas the latter means a bluish green.)
  • Labour–Liberal alliance
  • Arsenal–Liverpool match
  • The 1914–18 war
  • Pages 23–4
  • The London–Glasgow railway
  • The period between 1920 and 1930, or the period 1920–1930
  • It was broadcast from 1976 to 1984, or it was broadcast 1976–1984

In some of the above situations it is preferable to use words rather than an en dash, as words are less susceptible to misunderstanding, unless there is a pressing need for brevity.

The em dash

The em dash is hardly ever used. It can indicate the omission of a word or part of a word. Examples:

  • It was said that she was stepping out with — that summer.
  • Last night I dined at the T—s, and met Mrs Fotheringhay.

That’s more than enough about dashes. The next topic, unless I find myself diverted elsewhere, will be ellipsis, and so I will allow this instalment to tail off with those three little dots . . .

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.

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