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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.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

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

Capitalizing Composition Titles: The Lowdown

Which words should be capitalized in titles of books, plays, films, songs, poems, essays, chapters, and the like? This is a vexing matter, and policies vary. The time-honored advice—capitalize only the “important” words—doesn’t help much. Aren’t all words in a title important?

The following rules for capitalizing composition titles are virtually universal.

• Capitalize the title’s first and last word.

• Capitalize all adjectives, adverbs, and nouns.

• Capitalize all pronouns (including it).

• Capitalize all verbs, including the verb to be in all forms (isarewashas been, etc.).

• Capitalize no, not, and the interjection (e.g., How Long Must I Wait, O Lord?).

• Do not capitalize an article (aanthe) unless it is first or last in the title.

• Do not capitalize a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, for, yet, so) unless it is first or last in the title.

• Do not capitalize the word to, with or without an infinitive, unless it is first or last in the title.

Otherwise, styles, methods, and opinions vary; for instance, certain short conjunctions (e.g., asifhowthat) are capped by some, lowercased by others. 

A major bone of contention is prepositions. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends capitalizing all prepositions of more than three letters (e.g., withaboutacross). Other authorities advise lowercase until a preposition reaches five or more letters. Still others say not to capitalize any preposition, even big words like regarding or underneath.

Hyphenated words in a title also present problems. There are no set rules, except to always capitalize the first element, even if it would not otherwise be capitalized, such as to in My To-go Order (some would write My To-Go Order). Some writers, editors, and publishers choose not to capitalize words following hyphens unless they are proper nouns or proper adjectives (Ex-Marine but Ex-husband). Others capitalize any word that would otherwise be capped in titles (Prize-WinningUp-to-Date).

Many books have subtitles. When including these, put a colon after the work’s title and follow the same rules of composition-title capitalization for the subtitle: The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage. Note that is capitalized because it is the first word of the subtitle.

Capitalizing composition titles is fraught with gray areas. Pick a policy and be consistent. Next time we’ll discuss more of the pitfalls of this tricky business.


Pop Quiz

Capitalize the following titles. Answers are below.

1. how to be decisive yet careful

2. the secrets of the woman who is free

3. where, o where, is my in-the-flesh soulmate?

4. happiness: the proof that it is possible

5. the man who did not dance with wolves


Pop Quiz Answers

1. How to Be Decisive yet Careful

2. The Secrets of the Woman Who Is Free

3. Where, O Where, Is My In-the-Flesh Soulmate? (OR In-the-flesh)

4. Happiness: The Proof That It Is Possible (OR that It Is Possible)

5. The Man Who Did Not Dance with Wolves (OR With Wolves)

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Posted on Wednesday, March 4, 2015, at 7:55 pm

Thrash the Slash

There have always been words that people use to show they’re cool—words like cool, which gained wide acceptance in the 1940s, unseating swell, keen, and spiffy.

And there have always been trendy phrases. In the 1970s, no one who was cool said in conclusion or in the last analysis. It was all about the bottom line—a phrase still in use, although it has been eclipsed by at the end of the day.

But now, perhaps for the first time, a punctuation mark is all the rage. It’s the forward slash, also known as the virgule, solidus, slant, separatrix, and whack. It is the only mark with more names than legitimate uses.

To most of us who care about the written word, the omnipresent slash is about as welcome as a fox/piranha in the henhouse/bathtub.

It appears we have computer technology to thank for this symbol’s unlikely emergence. The slash has become indispensable for URLs and any number of online activities. But that hardly makes it compatible with proficient writing.

The slash has always been a handy tool for taking notes and writing rough outlines. Substituting w/o for without, y/o for years old, and b/c for because can save valuable time and space.

However, most slashes can—and should—be removed from a final draft. Writers who keep a construction like any man/woman in their finished work instead of replacing it with any man or woman are telling their readers, “I don’t have enough time or respect for you to write all this small stuff out.”

Our offices are teeming with an eclectic range of grammar primers, reference books, and style guides. Although many of these volumes have entire sections on punctuation marks, only a handful even acknowledge the ignoble slash. The consensus is that a slash has two principal uses:

• To separate numbers in dates (9/11/2001) and fractions (½).

• To denote the original line breaks in quoted poetry (“Celery, raw / Develops the jaw”).

Here are some recent examples of slash-mania:

They can indeed be responsible and successful statesmen/stateswomen. (Would it kill you to write “statesmen and stateswomen”?)

Using the pass/fail option backfired on her. (How about “pass-fail”?)

An amateur might find him/herself in trouble. (Amateurs might find themselves in trouble.)

I don’t open letters/mail that aren’t/isn’t addressed to me. (I don’t open letters or other mail that isn’t addressed to me.)

Try this experiment: say “I don’t open letters/mail that aren’t/isn’t addressed to me” out loud to someone. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?


Pop Quiz

This might be the easiest pop quiz yet. Suggested fixes are below.

1. When/if Mary ever shows up, we can serve dinner.
2. Each child had a permission slip from a parent/guardian.
3. This car gets thirty miles/gallon.
4. The actor/director/producer Troy Biffley was happy to sign autographs.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. When and if Mary ever shows up, we can serve dinner.
2. Each child had a permission slip from a parent or guardian.
3. This car gets thirty miles per gallon.
4. The actor-director-producer Troy Biffley was happy to sign autographs.

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Posted on Wednesday, October 22, 2014, at 4:16 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

The Case of the Missing Hyphen, Part 2

We thank all of you who took the time to respond to the question we posed two weeks ago: Should it be e-mail or email? There were eloquent arguments for both sides, but email won decisively. “Time to join the 21st century,” wrote one gentleman, who added, “and I’m 61 years old.”

Many of you chose email for pragmatic reasons, like this respondent: “In all practicality, email will win. On my smartphone, anyone typing the word e-mail has to shift to a second, then a third screen to complete the word.”

What this amounts to, said another reader, is that “texting is creating a whole new language.” We find ourselves rattled by that thought.

If, as one of you wrote, “The only quick punctuation mark I have on my smartphone is the period,” then this helps explain the indifference to hyphens, commas, apostrophes—and capital letters after periods—that we nitpickers are noting with ever-increasing dismay. Why should advances in technology have to come at the expense of the English language?

Other readers took the long view. “When the use of a particular prefix with a particular word is new, the hyphen is a useful link,” wrote one. “Once people become used to the new combination, the hyphen will be dropped.” History bears out this astute observation. Let’s look at some other familiar words that have followed the same pattern.

Goodbye: In 1968, Random House’s American College Dictionary demanded a hyphen, and preferred good-by to good-bye. The 1980 American Heritage dictionary agreed. But by 2006, American Heritage preferred goodbye, although it also listed the hyphenated choices.

Passerby: It started out as passer-by. The Associated Press Stylebook still recommends the hyphen, but that probably won’t last. The American Heritage dictionary already gave passerby top billing eight years ago.

Fundraiser: After years of recommending fund-raiser, the Associated Press’s manual dropped the hyphen seven years or so ago.

Baseball: The one-word form we have today did not prevail until less than 100 years ago. It was base ball in the early nineteenth century and base-ball in the early twentieth century.

Grass-roots (adjective): The American Heritage dictionary, Webster’s New World (fourth edition), and the Associated Press all agree on the hyphen, but grassroots is coming on strong.

So who are we to flout the inevitable? From now on, we’ll grit our teeth and write email.

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Posted on Monday, March 17, 2014, at 8:08 pm