Dash it all!

A recent spate of tweets from a regrettably well known person included something uncharacteristic that caught some people’s eyes:

You know, an en dash.

Well, some of you know, anyway. The editors sure do. One of the definitions of “editor,” after all, is “Someone who knows all the dashes and how to use each one.” But many other people are variably flummoxed by the assortment of floating horizontal lines available.

I’m an editor and I’m here to help. Presenting my latest article for The Week:

Dashes and hyphens: A comprehensive guide

3 responses to “Dash it all!

  1. I’ve been wondering about this for a while, and here’s as good a place as any to bring it up. It seems to me the names of punctuation marks reflect their roles in grammar: period, comma, hyphen, etc. In contrast, “en dash,” like “em-,” seems more like a typographer’s term. (I’m not sure whether the “dash” part reflects its form or function). Are there other names for these two? Is there a distinction between the grammatical content of a sentence and the rules for its typography?

    (When I was in 6th grade our teacher would dictate to us for handwriting practice. She used a punctuation form not in your list, one I had never seen before or since. She called it “two dots and a dash,” or a colon followed by a dash. )

    • A colon followed by a dash is very old-style – we don’t use that anymore. The distinctions between the kinds of dash are indeed typographical, but they’re still functional too – it’s just that there are style decisions that can be made on what to use where, within reason. It’s a level of nicety above what is normally taught in schools, but that’s why there are print professionals: to take it to the next level.

  2. Great explanation, thank you! I’m bookmarking it to send to new authors who are mystified by the arcane changes I make to their punctuation.

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