Those little horizontal lines matter

rogersgeorge on November 18th, 2009

We commonly use three little horizontal lines in English: the hyphen, the N-dash, and the M-dash. Some people say we use hyphens and dashes, but I prefer the increased precision of saying two dashes. They’re named for how wide they are, by the way; the width of a capital N or a capital M.

Everybody knows what a hyphen is. You use it for compounds (see the two preceding posts), and to divide a word at the end of a line if it doesn’t fit. And a few other minor places, such as in telephone and social security numbers. You get a hyphen by pressing the key just to the left of the equals sign on your keyboard. You get an identical symbol by pressing the minus key on the numeric keypad. Technically the minus sign and hyphen are different—the  code sent by the keyboard to the computer is different for the two keys, and some fancy-dancy typesetting systems (Tex and BookMaster come to mind) distinguish between them. That’s probably more than you need to be told about hyphens.

N-dash. An N-dash is a little longer than a hyphen. Use it when you describe a range of values, such as when a store is open: 7–9. To get an N-dash: hold the Alt key down while you type 0150 on the numeric keypad, then release the Alt key. Use an N-dash, and you class up your document, and your readers won’t even know what hit them.

M-dash. An M-dash is a little longer than an N-dash. Use an M-dash to show a break in thought. In the olden days you got the equivalent of an M-dash by typing two hyphens in a row, but you can get a real M-dash with the Alt-key trick, only you type 0151 instead of 0150. Use of M-dashes is a handy indicator of sophistication in typography, and they make your writing easier to understand.

Here’s a hyphen, an N-dash, and an M-dash: -, –, —. Easy to tell the difference, eh? (I’m feeling Canadian right now.)

All this discussion leads to a gaffe in a recent headline in an article published by Ziff-Davis, of all people, that beautifully demonstrates the importance of using the correct punctuation mark. Here’s the headline:

Google Voice-Free Calling Has Arrived

Now, doesn’t that look like some way to make a call without using your voice? Read the article, however, and you discover that Google Voice is a way to make a call for free—a much different meaning, and one that certainly makes more sense. They should have written “Google Voice—Free Calling Has Arrived.”

If you want people to understand you, remember that a hyphen ties things together, an M-dash separates them.

Care to quibble or add to these short lists of what each mark does? Comment. Want to learn more about writing clearly? Get the free document on the right.

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In which I rant on about hyphens

rogersgeorge on November 10th, 2009

Harrumpf! I’d expect a notable scientific  journal like the Daily Galaxy to get these things right. Especially after I so recently described how to do it. (I’m sure they read my missives regularly…)

When you have a phrase that’s used as an adjective, you hyphenate it. That way you know the first word in the phrase isn’t modifying the second word, but the words together are modifying the noun.

Here’s the example. They get it right the second time, one paragraph later, so I suspect careless proofreading.

“…we have a much better idea of how to find and recognize Earth like planets (Emphasis mine. This should be hyphenated.) outside our solar system…” said Enric Palle, of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias.

“Many discoveries of Earth-size planets (correct!) are expected in the next decades and some will orbit in the habitable zone of their parent stars.”

Side note: I see they capitalize “Earth.” A century back, when I was in sixth grade, Mrs. Clemens taught us to capitalize all the planet names except earth.

Don’t get me wrong—I read their articles regularly and find them interesting and informative. But carelessness like this frosts me. If they had read and followed the little freebie I offer (see the form on the right) perhaps they would have been more careful. I recommend you take a look at it.

Hyphen or not?

rogersgeorge on November 2nd, 2009

Our lesson today, class, is about when and when not to hyphenate phrases.

Hyphenate adjective phrases. You can have set-up instructions, a step-by-step plan, a last-minute trip, living-room furniture, and out-of-the-box thinking. All these phrases are adjectives. They describe nouns (technically the word should be the more generic term “substantives,” not “nouns.” “Thinking” isn’t a noun, it’s a gerund.)

Do not hyphenate phrasal verbs or prepositional phrases. You sign up for a trip, set up a process, hook up a connection, sign in to your account. You can put down the box,  and you can pull over to the side of the road (verbs), you plan step by step, go on a trip at the last minute, keep it under your hat, and you think out of the box (prepositional phrases).

Some phrases are used as nouns. “That was a nasty put-down.”

One type of exception to these hyphenations: Some phrases have become so common they have turned into compound words. You have a pickup truck, a login ID, and a nice setup.

Can you think up some better examples? Put your own thought-of phrases in the comments.