Let’s talk hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.
Are you using them the correct way? Are you using the correct lengths? You are probably wondering about that second question, and we will get to it in a moment. But first let’s talk about what each one is and does. Much of what you will see is based on the AMA and CMA information. In other words, these aren’t ideas I pulled out of the air. You’ve been taught differently, then you’ve been taught differently.
Let’s take them by length order.
First to join us is the hyphen.
What does it look like? –
Where do you find it? You’ll find it between the 0 and the = keys.
How do you use it?
First of all there are several names for the uses of the hyphen. I’m not going to bother filling your time with names that may not even be real or standards. I am going to give examples. Isn’t that what we want when we go looking for this information?
- Sometimes you will use the hyphen when words are linked together to describe something. They are linked together because they are essentially one descriptive trait.
- She is a twenty-nine-year-old college student.
- My mother-in-law made dinner tonight.
- The novel is forty-two chapters long.
- A quarter is one-fourth of a whole.
- She lives in a split-level house.
- I think we all know about the hyphen between numbers, such as forty-one. I know, I know, we aren’t supposed to spell forty-one out but I do in my writing, and in truth you will see a lot of advice saying to do so. But writing numbers is a whole different article. For me it’s a style preference. I visually like the numbers spelled out.
- And of course there is the hyphenated last name. Abigail Smith-Wesson.
Now we have the En Dash.
What does it look like? –
Where do we find the En Dash? Today we are going to use the lap top. Because I use the laptop.
But first we’re going to talk about the uses of the En Dash.
How do you use it?
- You use the En Dash for noting ranges. 1–100 is an example of a range. Also a range of time such as June–August is summer vacation for schools in the USA.
- You might even see a sentence that has – in it. I know you are scratching your head. What you are seeing is an En Dash with a space on either side. Some people use that as an Em Dash.
Last and definitely not least is the Em Dash.
What does it look like? —
Where do you find it on the keyboard? Good question. And no, don’t hit the hyphen a few times.
How do you use it?
- Think of the Em Dash as an interrupter. Interrupter is my word for it here. And I mean that in a couple of different ways.
- The most common we see in novel writing is when dialogue is interrupted. “You are a no good piece of fu—” “What were you going to say, young man?”
- But you can also use it to insert a different thought in the middle of a sentence. I ramble a lot—I do so in my brain—and I type like I think. As long as my writing works—I don’t care what I use.
- Some people use the Em Dash in the place of commas, colons, parenthesis, and semicolons when they want to give whatever it is that extra bit of attention. That being said: don’t over use it. If you use it all throughout your novel then it just becomes another period to the eye and ear.
One thing to keep in mind about En Dashes and Em Dashes is, be consistent. As someone reads your novel, and let’s be a positive thinker here and say novels, you are training them to know what you mean. If you use an – to be an—in one chapter then do it in the next chapter and perhaps the next book as well. I am hoping you got what I did there.
How do the three look?
– En Dash
— Em Dash
The reason they are called En Dash and Em Dash are because how much space they take up.
How do they look with a word?
On my laptop when I look at what I am about to tell you there is a key combination or Shortcut key to use that includes the Num key. That’s the Number Lock key. I’m not certain about all of you, but I don’t have a number pad on my laptop. And the Function to actually create a number pad doesn’t work with the key combination to create the dashes I need. So what do I do? I create a new Shortcut key. It’s pretty simple to do even though the instructions below look long. I am very detailed when I give instructions. I see no reason to skip steps. Some of these steps are going to seem like, as I like to say ‘Duh’, steps to you but there is no reason not to include them.
Where do you find the En Dash and the Em Dash?
I’m not sure what kind of laptop you use. But if you use Windows then this should work. What you do is:
- Open Word on your laptop.
- Click the Insert tab along the top of the screen.
- Look for the Symbols It’s at the far right on my bar at the top.
- Click Symbols.
- More than likely it will say ‘more symbols’.
- Click ‘more symbols’.
- You will have a pop up box appear with two tabs.
- Click the Special Characters
- You’ll see the En Dash and the Em Dash with the Shortcut key combination to get each symbol. The hyphen is what we have on the keyboards already. The En Dash is a little longer, and the Em Dash is longer than that. Now you will see there is a Shortcut key combination to use but on mine it says to use the Num My laptop doesn’t have a Num key and doing the Function that does the Number Lock doesn’t make the Dashes work. So continue on below.
- Select En Dash
- Click Shortcut Key at the bottom
- On the next pop up box called Customize Keyboard you will see a field where your cursor is most likely already waiting for you. That field is called Press new shortcut key.
- For the En Dash I chose Ctrl and the hyphen. It will look like Ctrl+- in the Shortcut key list. Then click Assign. You could use Ctrl and N.
- For the Em Dash I chose Ctrl, Alt hyphen. It will look like Alt+Ctrl+- in the Shortcut key list. Then click Assign. You could use Ctrl and M.
After all of that I want to show you something.
Looks the same, right? Not the same. The first was created by hitting the hyphen twice and then hitting enter. The second was created using my shortcut keys for the Em Dash.
If you made it this far you are probably wondering why all the bother. Using the correct punctuation is never going to hurt you. Not using it can. You don’t know what pet peeve will set off that person assigned to reading your submission has. If you can get something right, then why not get it right? There is more to this subject than what I have here. But this is a place to start. I wanted to plant the seed of getting it right and then you can grow your understanding from there, and possibly even grow mine by sharing in the comments. Other people will read this and you will help them.
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