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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Just simply DON’T!

rogersgeorge on September 16th, 2009

How often should you use “just” and “simply” when you write instructions?

Almost never.

Look a a few examples. In every case, not only do you not change the meaning when you remove these offending words, but the result is cleaner, faster, tighter, easier. The fewer distractions you give your readers, the better your writing.

“Just put your money in the box.”                           “Put your money in the box.”
“Just turn left when you see the sign.”                     “Turn left when you see the sign.”
“To accept the document, simply click ‘I Accept’ ”      “To accept the document, click ‘ I Accept.’ ”
Just simply eliminate these useless words.                Eliminate these useless words.

Simple, isn’t it?

When do you use these words?

  • Use “just” to refer to the immediate past. “He just stepped off the plane.”
  • Use “simple” to say that something is not complicated, but I can’t think of a simple example for “simply.”

In the next hour you will see a few examples of this misuse out there in the wild. Maybe you’ll find a useful use of “simply.” Come back and share in the comment box (click “Add a comment” below this post). If you want some good general advice about writing, fill in the form on the right.

Can you? May you? Might you?

rogersgeorge on September 9th, 2009

On traffic signs you see “Bridge may be icy” meaning that the bridge might be icy. Now “may” has only three letters, and highway signs don’t have much real estate, so the shorter word (ahem) might be justified. People seem to want to retreat from admitting that an event is only possible, so they use “may” to make what they say sound more polite. Or weaker. When you write expositorily—to convey information, facts, instructions, directions, or anything more formal than an email to a buddy, I recommend you be explicit—use these words precisely. Say what you mean!

May—Something has permission. You may show up any time after noon. You may watch TV after you finish your homework. You may not go out with the boys unless you bring me along.

Can—Something is able. Goats can butt. You can wash your hands and still have germs on them. You can watch TV, but it will rot your brain. I know you can fix the washing machine, but how long will it take?

Might—Something is possible. If traffic is heavy, you might be late. You might want to watch TV, but you may not, if you can’t get your work done.

You might find some room for variation, and you may certainly appeal to poetic license, but if you can, you should say exactly what you mean.

Now it’s your turn. Got any bad examples you love to hate? You may post a comment to this post and share it with us. I know you can, and some of you might. Look at the writing techniques on the right.

(Okay, no more bad rhymes.)

Which one is That?

rogersgeorge on September 3rd, 2009

“Which” is slightly more high-falutin’ than plain old “that,” so people, especially in business, tend to use “which” when they should use “that.” Let’s strive for clear communication, here, folks, not snootiness.

Which—are you making an aside, a remark that supplies extra (not necessary) information? Then use a comma and “which.” For example: “The steamboat, which was chugging across the harbor, capsized.” Sorry for the grim example, but it’s made up, so no one was hurt. All that “which” does is add some information about the steamboat. The sentence would have the same meaning without it. “The steamboat capsized.”

That—Are you giving extra information that’s necessary? Then you need “that.” Suppose you had several steamboats, and you need to identify the one that capsized. “The steamboat that was chugging across the harbor capsized.” No commas, either.

Bonus info: You don’t have to use commas to set off the aside. You can use parentheses or dashes. For example: “Correct use of asides (which I hope you learn) makes your writing more lucid.”

Extra bonus: If you use MS Word, and have the grammar checker turned on, it just about always gives you the correct recommendation on this one.

Maybe you can come up with better examples of this. Put them in the comments, and if you haven’t already, download my five basics over there on the right.