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The Grammar Rule Only Copyeditors Know

This essay is 100% apolitical. I promise. (It’s about hyphens and dashes.)

(This post was originally published, in slightly different form, in The Innovation.)

Before getting into the (riveting) topic of this essay—that is, hyphens and dashes—I want to say what a pleasure it is, in these times of post-election polarization and strife, to write a short essay on the placid and innocuous art of punctuation. Humbly, I do my part to Make America Grammatical Again. Onward . . .

I recently read Joseph O’Neil’s novel The Dog. On page 88, I noticed the following two phrases: “non–dog lover” and “no-dog building.” Do you see the difference in punctuation? Why an en-dash (–) in the first phrase and a hyphen (-) in the second? Here are the complete sentences:

. . . I was in effect asking her to be other than who she was, which was a non–dog lover.

But The Situation [an apartment building in Dubai] is a no-dog building.

I’ll answer this hyphen-dash question in a minute. First, a little review. Let’s go from Chihuahua (-) to Great Dane (—).

The hyphen (-).

Hyphens are connectors (the word comes from the Greek huphén = together). Most of us know that these marks—the shortest of our little horizontal line segments—are used primarily to create phrasal adjectives. Here are a couple of examples, from the mouth of the current (cum outgoing) Attorney General of the United States of America:

Obviously I’ve been outspoken and concerned about a last-minute shift to universal mail-in ballots. —William Barr (cited in Fintan O’Toole, “Enabler in Chief,” New York Review of Books, November 5, 2020, 26)

(That this example is topical (as I write this) is entirely coincidental.)

Of course, hyphens also show up in right justified text—I mean “right-justified text”—when words break across lines. We might, if we were feeling especially daring, call this the “right-justified-text-line-break–hyphen rule.” (The perceptive (and patient) reader will note the en-dash between “break” and “hyphen”; I’m getting there.)

The en-dash (–).

This mark, which in some fonts is the width of a capital N (hence the name), is a little trickier. Two main rules pertain to en-dashes:

En-dash rule 1: Use an en-dash to show a range of something, or tension or movement between two things. The en-dash often replaces a word like to or versus. For example, Donald J. Trump was president of the United States during the years “2016–2020” (hard stop). His reign—for lack of a better word—ended soon after the “Biden–Trump” election. (I’m just coming up with these on the fly. Again, topicality is entirely coincidental.) Unlike hyphens, which, you may recall, are connectors, en-dashes often create the opposite of a feeling of connection or togetherness. No Kumbaya, my Lord, in “Biden–Trump,” methinks.

En-dash rule 2: Well, this is the hard one. I’ll get to it soon. (This is a short stigmeological essay on little horizontal lines. I do what I can, dear reader, to maintain a modicum of tension.)

One challenge of this mark is that the standard keyboard does not give us an en-dash key. This bothers me mightily. Most keyboards offer keys for something called a backquote (or backtick) (`) and a tilde (~), neither of which is of much use as a stand-alone mark. And how often do any of use the vertical line (|) or the less-than/greater-than signs (<, >)? But no en-dash?! Luckily, we have some options: If you’re using MS Word, try “control + hyphen.” If you’re on a Mac, try “option + hyphen.” If you’re working online, try “alt + 0150” (hold “alt” while typing the numbers).

Because of this sad state of keyboard affairs—not to mention widespread American ignorance (excuse me, I mean grammatical ignorance)—the en-dash often gets replaced with a hyphen. In fact, most newspapers eschew the en-dash entirely. (Ah, how my fingers twitch for my red correction pencil when I read these fragile relics from the days of yore.) In any case, the en-dash is worth getting right.

The em-dash.

This mark, which is the width of a capital M, signals an interruption in the flow of a sentence. One common use—to my mind, this is the em-dash’s hippest use—is to place an independent clause in the middle of an independent clause: a lexicological matryoshka doll. Here’s an example, taken at random from a recent article by (once again) the great political essayist Fintan O’Toole (“Democracy’s Afterlife,” New York Review of Books, December 3, 2020):

When [President Trump] declared an election that was still very much alive to be a dead thing, over and done with—“Frankly we did win this election”—he made the United States a liminal space in which a supposedly epic moment in its history both happened and did not happen. (4)

Sometimes em-dashes are used kind of like colons. Here’s a good example (same essay):

The electoral college, the massive imbalance in representation in the Senate, the ability to gerrymander congressional districts, voter suppression, and the politicization of the Supreme Court—these methods for imposing on the majority the will of the minority have always been available. (6)

(Again, just random examples to illustrate punctuation.)

The most common em-dash mistake I come across is the addition of spaces on both sides of the mark. Look carefully above. The em-dash starts immediately after the preceding word, and ends immediately before the following word. Most respected publishers use em-dashes in this way. (N.B.: In British English typography – and in most newspapers – en-dashes are usually used in place of em-dashes, and they are surrounded by spaces (as displayed in this sentence). Medium itself often puts spaces on either side of em-dashes, causing, it is true, quite the kerfuffle (mutatis mutandis). Finally some respected online journalists and bloggers use two hyphens, surrounded by spaces (--). All of this makes the grammatical prescriptivist cry inwardly, if not outwardly.)

Once again, our keyboards are left wanting. For MS Word, try “control + alt + hyphen.” For Mac, try “option + shift + hyphen.” If you’re working online, try “alt + 0151.”


So, finally, let us return to the original question (this is the second rule for en-dashes). Why “non–dog lover” (with an en-dash)? Why not just write it like “no-dog building” (with a hyphen)? The answer is a somewhat obscure rule, but one that all the best editors know and use:

When one part of a phrasal adjective has two or more words or is itself hyphenated, use an en-dash to clarify the primary connection point between the two main parts. So we have a “Nobel Prize–winning author” (an author who won the “Nobel Prize”), a “pre–World War II document” (a document from before “World War II”), or a “right-justified-text-line-break–hyphen rule” (a “hyphen rule” having to do with a “right-justified-text-line-break”).

So a “non–dog lover” is a person who doesn’t love dogs, i.e. the opposite of a dog lover. A “non-dog lover” (with a hyphen) would be a lover who is not a dog—quite the difference. For what it’s worth, my wife, who loves dogs and is most assuredly not a dog, is a “non-dog–dog lover.” (The other phrase, “no-dog building,” simply refers to a building with no dogs.) Here are a few more examples: a “small-business loan” is a loan for a small business; a “small–business loan” is a business loan that is small. “Blue-green water” is aqua colored; “blue–green water” is an oxymoron (green water cannot also be blue).

I think that covers the basics—and then some—of hyphens and dashes. So put on your MAGA hat (vide supra), turn down the news, pick up your writing pen, and stay safe everyone.

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