Now most people don’t think twice about the dots and dashes that they use in their day to day writing (and morse code has been out of fashion for a long time). But like most punctuation that goes unnoticed and unobserved, a dash (-) an en dash (–) and an em dash (—) are often indistinguishable from each other when used individually. Once used together, their lengths may be noticed, but not understood to mean different things, or that they are meant to be used in different situations. Ellipses (…) on the other hand, have become so common that everyone uses them, (albeit incorrectly) even if everyone doesn’t know their name.
These dashes are used to hyphenate or join two words (compound adjectives) so they have a combined meaning like “Beware the green-eyed monster!” In this case, without the hyphen you might be wary of a green monster, which isn’t quite the same thing as being wary of a green-eyed one. The green one might be nice for all you know and doesn’t appreciate being discriminated against for the colour of its skin. In my example, the monster comes after the compound adjective, if he had come before like “Beware the monster who was green eyed” then there is no need for the hyphen. Words like high school or good looking are examples where hyphens are not needed to understand the intended meaning. Hyphens should only be used to combine two words that would be confusing without one. For example “For dinner we’re having slow-roasted chicken not slow roasted-chicken.” The chicken is slow roasted, not the roasted chicken is slow. It is important that you don’t over hyphenate.
Hyphens are also used to show that a word has been cut off or truncated at the end of a line, but intends to continue on the next. It is often misused as bullet points (a job for en dashes), as a way to separate speech (em dashes) and to show that something is missing (ellipses). Hyphens are so overused because it has taken on the jobs of these other punctuation marks. It is quite likely that this has grown over time due to the convenience of having this one on the keyboard while most of the others you have to look up in “Special characters.”
Tip: Do not hyphenate words ending in “ly”
En dashes –
These dashes are the width of an “n” hence the name “En dashes.” It is used for periods of time like Nelson Mandela (1918–2013), or Christmas break is Dec. 23–Jan. 2. It can also be used to represent a relationship between two things like “The Flames beat the Oilers 2–3.” The en dash is also the dash you want to use when making bulleted lists. Most people don’t know that there is a separate symbol to show these examples (among many other usages for en dashes) and continue to use the hyphen for all of their en dash needs. The use of a hyphen in these examples can be correct depending on which style guide you are using (APA, MLA, CP Style, etc.), but for the most part it is a good idea to use them instead of just assuming hyphens are the ones you need.
Tip: Do not include spaces on either side of an en dash like you would for a hyphen
Em dashes —
Em dashes are the longest of the three lines (the length of an “m”) and represent a way to include related information or to bring focus or attention to one part of a sentence. It can also be used to show an interruption. In informal writing it has been used to replace other punctuation — semi-colons, colons and commas— but its only proper use is as parentheses. It should not be used —or used sparingly —in formal writing. Many people tend to over use em dashes — I’m no exception. I tend to use it like a comedian would use a pause before delivering the punchline. The problem with overuse is that it tends to drag down your text and stop the natural flow of your words.
Tip: Use Em dashes to show the author of quotes.
“Nothing is impossible, the word itself says, “I’m possible!”” — Audrey Hepburn
Ellipses are always three periods. Not two nor four nor any other number other than three. Most computers will recognize ellipses and space them out accordingly, so please stop using more than three periods! Ellipses are used to show that something has been cut, altered or left out of the sentence. For example, when you’re reading the newspaper you will often find ellipses with square brackets […] are used to shorten or tighten a quote so that it flows better with the rest of the story. Ellipses are also often used at the end or the beginning of a phrase to denote pauses, breaks in speech, or trailing off due to emotion. For example “But that would mean…” gives the reader the impression that something monumental was just realized. Having one period would make it a fragment, having an em dash would suggest that the person was cut off or interrupted, but having an ellipses show that the person did in fact stop talking and that there was a(n internal) reason for it.
Tip: There is a lot of debate over ellipses and spacing. Unless you have a set guide on how your company would like you to use them, pick one style and stick with it.
Now this Dots and Dashes Punctuation Lessen isn’t really something that will radically change the way you work, but you may find yourself stopping to consider them before haphazardly throwing a hyphen in when you know what you really need is an En Dash, or when you go to use an Em Dash for the hundredth time and stop. Hope this was helpful. I will be doing a second blog on dots and dashes in the new year (or maybe more if the spirit moves me) to cover colons (:), semi-colons (;), and swung (tilde) dashes (~). Commas deserve a blog for themselves, but I won’t guarantee there will be one unless it is in demand! If there are any other grammar tips you’d like to learn more about, feel free to comment below.