Dashes are much more than just lines. They have very specific grammatical jobs. There are actually three types of dashes (excluding track and field events). The typographical dashes are the hyphen [ - ], the en-dash [ - ] and the em-dash [ - ].
Hyphen is used to created compound words like mother-in-law and full-time job. They're also used to connect words that are broken in print by line breaks. When using hyphens in this manner, break words only at their appropriate syllables. If in doubt where to do this, consult a dictionary.
Note there are certain words such as online/on-line and byproduct/by-product that can be written with or without hyphens. This depends which style guide you're using as a reference. Whichever style you choose, consistency is paramount.
Hyphens have also traditionally been used in the United States and Canada to separate the sections of telephone numbers, but with the proliferation of new media, hyphens are frequently replaced with dots or spaces, giving us three choices:
555 555 1234
For the time being, take your pick-hyphens, dots or spaces-but whatever is chosen, be consistent throughout the document. Putting parentheses or round brackets around area codes seems atavistic nowadays, when required dialing of area codes is so commonplace.
The en-dash [ - ] is longer than the hyphen. In Microsoft Word, you can create an en-dash by pressing CTRL + the minus key on the number pad on a PC or by pressing Option + the dash key on a Mac. The en-dash is used to separate number sequences, such as 7 - 9 p.m. or pages 167-182. In fact, the AutoCorrect feature in Microsoft Word automatically changes hyphens to en-dashes when they appear between numbers.
Finally, em-dash [ - ] is the longest dash. It's used to expand or separate thoughts, to indicate a verbal pause or to designate a series within a phrase. Here are examples:
In August 2007, Osmo VÃ¤nskÃ¤ will return to the BBC Proms-the world's largest classical music festival.
Martin Scorsese-director of The Departed, Goodfellas and Raging Bull-was nominated six times before winning his first Oscar.
To create an em-dash in Microsoft Word, press CTRL + ALT + the minus key on the number pad (PC) or press Shift + Option + dash key (Mac).
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About Grammar Grater
Grammar Grater is a weekly podcast from Minnesota Public Radio that looks at English words, grammar and usage in a time when everybody's a writer. And with the global nature of communication, there's not a single style guide everyone uses. Each week, host Luke Taylor and the Grammatis Personae Players (Cory Busse and Amy Ault) take a lighthearted approach to language by putting common linguistic bugbears through the Grammar Grater.
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