Dashes? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Dashes!

English: Comparison of hyphen, en dash, and em...

English: Comparison of hyphen, en dash, and em dash, and letters n and m, in various fonts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Em dashes, en dashes, and hyphens. The distinction between these three straight lines of minutely differing length is a topic only an editor could love. But it’s also the source of confusion and frustration among members of the tribe, and anyone who has to deal with us. Here’s my attempt at a quick and dirty guide.

Em Dashes

These are the long ones, sized, theoretically, according to the width of a capital M in whatever typeface you’re using. They’re used  to set off a chunk of a sentence from the rest of the sentence (in the same way you would parentheses, before certain kinds of lists, or to indicate a pause). See my earlier post on the em dash and its uses. Example: Editors—why don’t they notice that nobody cares about dumb little details like dashes?

En Dashes

As you may have already guessed, en dashes are the width of a capital N, making them the middle-sized punctuation mark of the trio we’re discussing. They are sometimes hard to distinguish from a hyphen. In virtually all cases, they are used to indicate a range of numbers. Example: The editor found 150–210 mistakes per chapter, though sometimes it felt like 150,000–210,000.


Hyphens are short but sweet. Their use is probably one of the most confusing issues in all of copyediting, and can’t fully be discussed in a post that I’ve already tried to sell as “quick and dirty.” Suffice to say that hyphens generally unite words (often compound modifiers). Example: I dreamed a beautiful dream of a word in which well-trained editors could charge $100 per hour.


Arcane Vocabulary: Masticate

When’s the last time you masticated in a glass of water?

In a word, to chew.  The source of many a trod-upon nerd’s joke in high school.  Next time someone steals your lunch money, try this: “Hey, I saw you masticating in the cafeteria.  How’d it feel?”

If editors ran the world, a superior vocabulary would win out over brute force every time.

Scrabble: The Main Event at the Nerd Olympics


Scrabble (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s nothing more satisfying than a high-scoring, obscure Scrabble word.  They get you all sorts of points, real and metaphorical.  Here are four words beginning with Q (itself worth ten points!).  I’ve included definitions from Merriam-Webster’s (online ed.), in case anyone challenges you.

quoit: a flattened ring of iron or circle of rope used in a throwing game (i.e., the British version of the game of horseshoes).

quondam: former, sometime (as in “a quondam friend”).

quoin: a solid exterior angle (as of a building).

quincunx: an arrangement of five things in a square or rectangle with one at each corner and one in the middle (i.e, the five side on a die).

The last of this group, quincunx,  is the king of the arcane, high-scoring Scrabble words (twenty-six points!).  Out of sheer luck, I managed to get this word during my first Scrabble game, much to my sister’s alarm.  I don’t think I’ve won a game since.

People, Places, and Merriam-Webster’s

Cover of "Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Di...

Cover via Amazon

Two splendid things about the paper edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary are the special, super, secret sections at the back, “Geographical Names” and “Biographical Names.”  Not only do they provide the proper spelling of the names of all manner of mystifying places and people, but they also show the proper capitalization and spacing (useful, for example, in the names of Dutch people, which often contain variations on “van der”).  And to top that off, entries have little nuggets of information, like population or profession.  Why oh why doesn’t the free online edition have this?

Hipsters and Their -LYs

The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t have a lot of simple formulas or rules of thumb.  But here is one about hyphenation: “compounds formed by an adverb ending in ly plus an adjective or participle (such as largely irrelevant or smartly dressed) are not hyphenated either before or after a noun” (7.82).

Ok, maybe that doesn’t sound so simple.  It’s easy to get bogged down in keeping adverbs, adjectives, and participles straight.  It’s much clearer in examples.  Here are a few, all expressing opinions that make cool people hate me.

Wrong: Wes Anderson’s movies are excessively-stylized.

Hipsters: they’re all -LYers

Right: Wes Anderson’s movies are excessively stylized.

Wrong: The sweetly-sung tones of the Eagles can never be displeasing.
Right: The sweetly sung tones of the Eagles can never be displeasing.

Wrong: Incoherently-written tomes, such as Infinite Jest, are off-putting to the reader.
Right: Incoherently written tomes, such as Infinite Jest, are off-putting* to the reader.

Wrong: Your nastily-worded invective against people who commute in cars (rather than on bikes) suggests that you are not as morally-superior as you think you are.
Right: Your nastily worded invective against people who commute in cars (rather than on bikes) suggests that you are not as morally superior as you think you are.

That’s right, people.  Correct is better than cool.

Now where did I stash my boot-cut jeans again?  They’re bound to come back in fashion some day…

*Nerds interested in such things should note that “off-putting” is hyphenated in Merriam Webster’s, and therefore in my blog.