House Style: Dash Decoder

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We often create strategies that empower Monday clients to create and manage their own blog or social content. To that end we also wanted to create some tools to help you do it well—“House Style” is our series on writing best practices.

Dashes exist for clarity or to help speed up the pace of writing, so it only seems right to get straight to the point: you’ve probably been using dashes wrong, or (unknowingly) not using them at all.

The web is awash with rogue hyphens where there should be dashes, and as an unapologetic pedant, I’m doing my best to put an end to it. What follows is your guide to using both with (house) style.

the em dash

Unless you’re in the world of academia (or writing a richly informative white paper) there are only a few instances where you need anything as formal as a semicolon, or even a colon. More often than not, an em dash or two will suffice.

Where does it get its name? It’s the same width as a capital M. This is a favourite of web and magazine writers because it is so versatile and forgiving—it can take the place of parentheses, a semicolon, a colon or a comma. It’s informal and picks up the pace of any piece of writing, driving the reader’s eye forward, adding clarity without bogging things down.

When to use it:

  • To set something off for emphasis: an em dash can replace a colon or a pair of commas to add weight to words. “Finally she had found an artistic haven in the middle of nowhere—Marfa.”

  • In place of parenthesis to add context: Using a pair of em dashes is an informal way of giving parenthetical information, particularly when quoting someone. “All of my dad’s favourite musicians—McCartney, Neil Young, the Stones—took the stage that weekend.”

  • In place of commas to enhance readability: If a sentence feels crowded with commas and you really want a particular piece of information to stand out, use em dashes. It gives a little more emphasis and gets rid of “comma clutter.” “In a perfect world—one in which he sipped coffee, read Kafka, and rode his bike all day—he would never have to wear this polyester uniform.”

  • In place of a colon to add emphasis and take the formality down a notch. “She picked up all the essentials—pens, notebooks, and a dozen artisanal donuts.”

  • In place of a semicolon to connect two closely related sentences: Use it to link two independent clauses to emphasize the relationship between them. “Her phone was an extension of her eyes, arms and ears—it was always in-hand.”

  • For attribution: “Whatever I’m writing—a blog post, web copy, or a sassy text—I love me an em dash!” —A.L.Smith

Some tips:

Some publications (Vox, The New York Times) may include spaces on either side of em dashes as part of their house style, but most don’t.

If you emphasize something in every sentence the em dash loses its power—use it sparingly. (See what I did there?)

How to type it:

  • on a Mac: type shift+alt+hyphen

  • on a PC:

    • If you have a numeric keypad: alt+1051

    • Using autoformat in Word, type two hyphens between two words, with no spaces

    • In Word or Google Docs: select Insert > Special Characters > then select or search for the em dash

  • on an iPhone: hold down the hyphen key until additional options appear. Select the longest one.

the N-dash

An en dash (the width of a capital N) has some uses of its own. Some publications use it in place of an em dash, in which case it can function in all the ways listed above (except attribution).

More often, however, it’s used to indicate a range—a timespan or date range. Best practice is to put no spaces on either side of the en dash when stating a range.

“I’ll be OOO from October 8–11, 2018.”

“Let’s meet from 2–3pm on Tuesday.”

“She revealed all the sordid details in chapters 4–6.”

How to type it:

  • on a Mac: type alt+hyphen

  • on a PC: using auto format in Word, type a word with a space after it, type a single hyphen with a space after it, type another word with a space.

  • on an iPhone: hold down the hyphen key until additional options appear. Select the middle option.

the hyphen

The most used and abused of the bunch, hyphens exist to connect words or parts of words. Plain and simple.

When to use it:

To create compound words:

  • Compound adjectives: five-year-old son, 80-year-old wine, Austin-bound flight, graffiti-proof wall, green-blue eyes

  • Compound nouns: mid-June, city-state, writer-editor

  • Compound verbs: an often-cited passage, double-click the image

To add a prefix or suffix to a word: carnival-esque, re-zip.

Double-barreled last names: Dianna Carter-Ellis.

To show a common element in a series of words: two-, three- and fourfold.

To connect a word split over two lines.

How to type it:

  • Just press the hyphen key

 

A little bit of style can go a long way towards clarity and consistency. Using the right dash—or hyphen, or even a colon, now and then—can make all the difference in readability; well-placed punctuation is a game changer.

Lindsay Seguin