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The Elusive En Dash

When a compound adjective precedes a noun it is describing, we often need a hyphen:
prize-winning recipe, twentieth-century literature. If a compound adjective comprises more than two words, we use as many hyphens as are needed: a three-day-old newspaper,
a dyed-in-the-wool snob.

But try to punctuate the compound adjectives in these phrases: a New York based artist,
a Charles Dickens inspired author, a post World War II novel. Most writers would take pains to avoid “New-York-based artist,” “Charles-Dickens-inspired author,” and “post-World-War-II novel.” Hyphenating open compounds like New York, Charles Dickens, and World War II feels wrong and looks weird.

Most of us would write New York-based artist, Charles Dickens-inspired author, and
post-World War II novel. We would respect the integrity of the compound proper noun, recognizing that a hyphen intrusion would not assist readers, and might confuse and distract them.

Some time ago, publishers decided that a hyphen was too puny to join open compounds to other words in a compound adjective. So they replaced the hyphen with the en dash, which is longer than a hyphen but shorter than a long dash. Here are en dashes in action:
New York–based artist, Charles Dickens–inspired author, post–World War II novel.

Most books and many magazines would pick the en dash over the hyphen in those three examples. The en dash is used for other purposes too. But you won’t find this mark in most daily newspapers—there is no mention of the en dash anywhere in the Associated Press’s influential stylebook for journalists. In fact, the most respected reference books and style guides of the twentieth century give short shrift to the en dash. H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage does not acknowledge its existence. Neither does Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful WriterWilson Follett’s Modern American Usage gives the en dash two sentences, and discourages its use.

Before the age of computers, only professional printers could make en dashes; everyone else muddled through with hyphens. Many people have never heard of en dashes, despite having seen them a thousand times. The irony is that although the en dash mostly goes unnoticed, its function is cosmetic. It resolves no ambiguities. It clears up no confusion. It does nothing that a hyphen can’t do and hasn’t done, except to look a bit more symmetrical in certain constructions. It is an elegant flourish that most readers haven’t been trained to recognize, let alone benefit from.

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If the en dash seems right for you, here is how to type one. On a PC, hold down the ALT key and type 0150 on the numeric keypad located on the far right of the keyboard. On a Mac, hold down the Option key and type the minus sign located at the top of the keyboard.


Pop Quiz

Supply the necessary punctuation. Answers are below.

1. Toby is a four year old terrier.
2. The apartment featured a bowling alley length hallway.
3. It was a Star Wars inspired fantasy.
4. The dessert had an ice cream like texture.
5. My terrier is four years old.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Toby is a four-year-old terrier. (two hyphens)

2. The apartment featured a bowling alley-length hallway.
(OR bowling alley–length OR bowling-alley-length)

3. It was a Star Wars-inspired fantasy.
(OR Star Wars–inspired)

4. The dessert had an ice cream-like texture.
(OR ice cream–like OR ice-cream-like)

5. My terrier is four years old. (CORRECT)

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Posted on Tuesday, April 14, 2015, at 3:40 pm

(All About) Parentheses

The singular form is parenthesis, but the plural parentheses is the word you’re more likely to see. Both words have a wide range of related meanings, and what some people identify as a parenthesis, others call parentheses.

So let’s keep it simple. For our purposes, a parenthesis is one of a pair of curved marks that look like this: ( ), and parentheses are both marks.

A symbol, number, word, phrase, or clause that is in parentheses explains, supplements, or comments on something in the sentence. Material in parentheses can be removed from a sentence without changing that sentence’s overall meaning or grammatical integrity.

Note the use of is in this sentence: My friend (and her brother) is coming today. The subject is My friend. Despite appearances, parentheses are never part of the subject. Remove them and we’d have two subjects, My friend and her brother, which would require the verb are coming. The use of parentheses is a clue that the writer was more concerned about the friend than about the brother.

Parentheses, long dashes, and commas are the three punctuation marks that indicate an interruption in the flow of a sentence. (Some might add semicolons, which can turn two simple sentences into a single, more complex sentence: Their eyes met; she smiled.)

Commas, the least intrusive of the three, signal the presence of relevant but nonessential data. Long dashes either expand upon the main point or take a slight detour from it. Parentheses by their very appearance let the reader know that the information fenced off by those vertical curves is a departure from the rest of the sentence. To illustrate:

Blaine, who was born in 1797 and died in 1860, did not live to see the Civil War.

Blaine—he was born in 1797 and died in 1860—did not live to see the Civil War.

Blaine (1797-1860) did not live to see the Civil War.

Sometimes the choice is clear. For instance, you’d never see this sentence: Blaine—1797-1860—did not live to see the Civil War. But it is also true that a writer’s use of one of these marks instead of another is often a matter of personal taste.

Parentheses can be used to form a separate sentence, as here: I hoped my friend was coming. (He canceled at the last minute.) But the writer could also have done this: I hoped my friend was coming (he canceled at the last minute). Note the placement of the period; if parentheses end a sentence, the period goes after the closing parenthesis.

Commas virtually always follow parentheses rather than precede them. This sentence is incorrect: When he got home, (it was already dark outside) he fixed dinner. Make it When he got home (it was already dark outside), he fixed dinner.

Writers have a lot of leeway with parentheses, as long as they heed a few simple guidelines. Used shrewdly (and sparingly!), parentheses add color, nuance, and spice to your writing.


Pop Quiz

Correct any sentence that needs it.

1. When Tony showed up, (he was right on time) we had a long talk.

2. Do not exceed 25 mph (you will be cited.)

3. After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water (he really needed it!)


Pop Quiz Answers

1. When Tony showed up (he was right on time), we had a long talk.

2. Do not exceed 25 mph (you will be cited).
OR Do not exceed 25 mph. (You will be cited.)

3. After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water (he really needed it!).
OR After the hike, Mark took a long drink of water. (He really needed it!)

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Posted on Sunday, March 23, 2014, at 9:25 pm

Sic for Sick Sentences

We have noticed a dismal new trend: not capitalizing words that need it. Flouting the rules of capitalization is yet another indignity visited upon our beleaguered language by self-appointed visionaries who seem hellbent on transforming standard English, even though many of them can barely read, write, or speak it.

From a recent magazine article: “ ‘i am just now noticing how long his arms are. maybe happy people have long arms,’ he emailed me.”

The writer of this piece chose not to point out that his correspondent should have capitalized “i” and “maybe.” It highlights an interesting problem: how to alert the reader when a direct quotation is in flawed English.

This is what the bracketed editor’s mark [sic] was invented for. The [sic] mark is found only in direct quotations, always enclosed in brackets. In formal writing, an author or editor inserts [sic] directly after a word or sentence to notify readers that something is off or incorrect but is reproduced exactly as it originally appeared (sic means “thus” in Latin). In the passage at hand, the “i” would be easy to deal with: “i [sic] am just now noticing …”

The “maybe” is more problematic. The use of [sic] has its practical limits. You’d never see “m[sic]aybe happy people have long arms.” And if the author wrote “maybe [sic] happy people have long arms,” the [sic] would be so far from the offending m that a reader might miss the point and think the entire word maybe was somehow unacceptable. Nonetheless, this is the only realistic option where [sic] is concerned.

By not confirming who was responsible for the lowercase i and m, the writer ran the risk that his readers would blame him for the e-mailer’s lapses. Evidently, this was a risk he was willing to take.


Pop Quiz

These sentences demonstrate bad habits that one sees frequently nowadays. Can you cure what ails them?

1. The real problem in such cases are the criminals.

2. Chocolate is our childrens’ favorite desert.

3. She’s not here- she left an hour ago.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. The real problem in such cases is the criminals. (It’s not pretty, but it’s correct.)

2. Chocolate is our children’s favorite dessert.

3. She’s not here—she left an hour ago. (Don’t use a hyphen to do a long dash’s work. Note: Some writers space long dashes on both sides, others (as here) use no spaces. Hyphens are never preceded or followed by a space.)

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Posted on Monday, January 27, 2014, at 2:01 pm

Dashes vs. Hyphens

Hyphen: Do not confuse a hyphen with a long dash. A hyphen’s chief function is to merge two or more separate words. For example, in the phrase nice-looking house, the hyphen combines two words, nice and looking, into one compound adjective.

Hyphens are also used to indicate any span or range, such as numbers, years, pages, etc.

Hyphens are covered in rules 14-26.

Hyphens are covered on pages 125-130.

The years 1929-1941 were brutal.

Long Dashes: Long dashes are used to replace commas, semicolons, colons, ellipses, and parentheses to indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought.

You are the friend—the only friend—who offered to help me.

Never have I met such a lovely person—before you.

I pay the bills—she has all the fun.
A semicolon could also be used here.

I need three items at the store—dog food, vegetarian chili, and cheddar cheese.
A colon could also be used here.

My agreement with Fiona is clear—she teaches me French and I teach her German.
Again, a colon would work here.

Please call my agent—Jessica Cohen—about hiring me.
Parentheses or commas would also work here.

I wish you would—oh, never mind.
Ellipses would also work here.

To form a long dash on most PCs, type the first word, then hold down the ALT key while typing 0151 on the numerical pad on the right side of your keyboard.

One method for creating a long dash on a Mac is to press and hold the Shift key, Option key, and minus (hyphen) key.

While there are many more possible uses of the long dash, be sure to curb your temptation to employ this convenient but overused punctuation mark.


Pop Quiz

Which type of mark, a long dash or a hyphen, should be used in each of the following sentences?

1. Alberto attended the University of Colorado (1981-1985).

2. I never thought I’d settle down-until I met you.

3. Kansas City straddles the Kansas-Missouri border.

4. We were in Kansas-Missouri was just across the border.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Alberto attended the University of Colorado (1981-1985). CORRECT

2. I never thought I’d settle down—until I met you. (long dash)

3. Kansas City straddles the Kansas-Missouri border. CORRECT

4. We were in Kansas—Missouri was just across the border. (long dash)

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Posted on Tuesday, June 2, 2009, at 9:31 am