The Difference Between Dashes—It’s a Thin Line

If you’re not a fan of puns or grammar (why are you here?), then I’m about to dash your day to ruins. This post is a breakdown of all the different types of dashes you’ll find in writing. One day, Madelyn’s Mark hopes to no longer see the abomination that is this: “–” Two hyphens right next to each other was never a punctuation mark and never will be. Let’s eliminate it altogether.

However, there are three connecting lines you should familiarize yourself with: the hyphen (-), the en dash (–), and the em dash (—). Read below to add a dash of style guide rules to your writing recipes.

What Is a Hyphen?

A hyphen is the runt of the dashes, maybe because its job is at the inter-word level. Hyphens generally connect words and prefixes, rather than acting as a joiner between clauses.

Examples: pre-existing health condition (AP style specific)

Tennessee enjoys a tax-free shopping weekend.

AP and Chicago Style Hyphen

Hyphens in the Associated Press style should be used sparingly. AP recognizes upfront that hyphens are “far from standardized,” and generally “a matter of taste, judgment, and style sense.” Chicago agrees with spare hyphenation, and advises writers and editors to follow their comprehensive hyphenation guide (CMOS 7.89) and Webster’s dictionary for proper hyphenation practice.

However, there are a few guidelines that both styles generally agree to.

  • avoid ambiguity: For example, a “long-tooth comb,” because a “long tooth comb” might be weird.
  • compound modifiers: Usually if the compound modifier precedes the noun it has a hyphen. If it comes after the noun, it doesn’t need the hyphen. For example, “the three-eyed troll,” but also, “The troll, three eyed, couldn’t find properly fitting glasses.”
  • numerals: In the case that a numeral needs to be spelled out, then use a hyphen. For example, “twenty-five.” Usually AP will use numeral figures for 10 and above and you won’t need to worry about the hyphen. Chicago style spells out one through ninety-nine, so hyphens will be much more common in any Chicago work involving numerals.
  • suspensive hyphen: Sometimes a pesky word injects itself into a hyphenated phrase. For example, “The sugar- and calorie-free cake tasted disgusting.” The suspensive hyphen allows for more than one compound modifier to be used without repeating the common word, in this case “free.”
  • Chicago and AP have differing rules for specific prefixes, for example AP style separates double vowels “pre-exist,” but Chicago keeps them together, “preempt.” Consult your editor/style guide for specific rules.

What is an En Dash?

The next longest connecting punctuation is the en dash (–), supposedly named that because it’s the length of the word “en.” It is another connective punctuation force, though it generally isn’t used for prefixes and suffixes like the hyphen.

AP Style En Dash

The AP Stylebook entry is simply for dashes, and within the text, they use an em dash (—). Since there’s no acknowledgement in AP, there are no guidelines to follow for the en dash. If your content would like to employ a customized local style and adhere to AP style overall, feel free to add an en dash to the local style rules. If you would like your contact to be strictly AP style, then forget the en dash and scroll below to learn more about their preferred joining punctuation, the em dash.

Chicago Style En Dash

Chicago offers several guidelines for using an en dash, primarily it’s used in numerical ranges. However, considering if your audience is more familiar with UK or U.S. style writing, you may use the en dash as a common punctuation mark.

  • indicates a range or “to:” When writing about a span, whether it’s book pages, bible verses, or a time period, an en dash is the proper symbol. For example, “1991–2018,” “1 Corinthians 13:4–12,” and “11 a.m.–5 p.m.” Note that there is no space between the numerals and the en dash.
  • unfinished number ranges: Often seen in biographies of subjects who are still living, an en dash symbolizes the ongoing nature of the time span. For example, “Margaret Atwood (1939–).”
  • ultra compound phrases: If the point you’re trying to make requires you to use several compound modifiers into one unifying idea, first, you may want to try and simplify what you’re trying to say. If that’s not possible, an en dash is your perfect connection. Chicago 6.80 provides this example, “quasi-public–quasi-judicial body.”
  • campus locations: Campuses that have a location in a city away from the main campus sometimes use an en dash to indicate the specific location. For example, “the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.”
  • British style: If you, or more importantly your audience, live across the pond, its common practice to use an en dash as sentence punctuation that can act as a comma, parentheses, or a colon. Spaces are placed on both sides of the dash. For example,

What Is an Em Dash?

The em dash (—) is the most versatile of your dashing options. It can replace various sentence punctuation styles. Though, for the sake of readability, it’s advised to pick one punctuation symbol to replace the comma, parentheses, or colon, in order to avoid excessive use. While usually the dashes are used to connect, sometimes the em dash is also used to show a break or interruption.

AP and Chicago Style Em Dash

  • can replace commas, parentheses, and colons: For example, “My favorite musicians—Tom Petty, Billy Idol, and Prince–have all passed.” “I’m writing an editing blog—one that no one is reading.”
  • sudden interruptions: For example, “I’m a highly composed perso—Good God! There’s a spider! Kill it!—now what was I saying?”
  • informal lists: the em dash should be avoided in lists in formal documents, but are fine for organizing thoughts or acting as bullet points in, say, a blog post.
  • an important difference: Take note! Chicago style uses the em dash with no spaces on either side of it, whereas AP places a space on both sides, no matter what.

This is just a general overview of the uses and differences of our dashes. If you have a specific question about a word or phrase, I’m happy to answer it! Contact Madelyn’s Mark at madelynsmark@gmail.com or comment below.

Here’s a general chart to summarize everything you need to know about dashes.

Dash tips

Gotta dash!

 

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