Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #5

From the Editor’s Eye
The 10 Most Common Errors Made by Writers
(And How to Fix Them)

The sixth of a ten-part series.

#5. Dash It All! Part A: Hyphen and En Dash

I must dash—but I am taking time to post the first of a two-parter on those straight-line thingies people use (and abuse) when “punchuating” their words. (Yep, these’re worth fightin’ over!) I will post the second part next week.

We have three types of punctuation marks that look enough alike to create confusion:


You see? Size does matter. (“en” and “em” indicate their respective widths)

These marks are used to either to JOIN or SEPARATE:

  • Hyphen joins syllables, words, and numbers
  • En dash joins syllables, words, and numbers
  • Em dash separates words and phrases

People often confuse the hyphen with the dash, the em dash in particular. Probably because the hyphen is the most similar character on the standard keyboard.

I often see this styling:

  • incorrect: I wanted to ask him out- but I thought he might laugh in my face.
  • correct: I wanted to ask him out—but I thought he might laugh in my face.

Hyphen and En Dash: The Joiners

 A hyphen indicates that a word has been split at the end of a line: This gargan-
tuan word is too long to fit within this line.

In addition, a hyphen may join related words or numbers.

An en dash also joins words and numbers, so the distinction can be a bit fuzzy.

The Chicago Manual of Style sees it this way: The hyphen connects two things that are closely related, such as words that work together as a single concept or a joint modifier; e.g., well-being, self-respect, toll-free call, free-range chicken, year-round, fuel-efficient vehicle, nerve-racking, hair-raising, tie-in, two-thirds).

The en dash, in an index, connects a range of pages being cited (e.g., 36–38), or years: The 1999–2000 season was the best ever.

The en dash also connects a range of things related by distance, as in the October–December issue of a magazine (the range includes November), and to connect a prefix to a “proper open compound: for example, pre–World War II—space that cannot be besmirched by hyphens because ‘World War II’ is a proper noun.” (Personally, I find that last explanation to be somewhat of an over-blown rationalization.)

I sense that the en dash is going the way of the dodo bird, because the use of the hyphen becomes a matter of expedience. You want to split hairs? Dig out your microscope.

If you know the rule and choose to break it, that’s up to you. But be consistent throughout your work. And keep in mind that the Punctuation Police may call you out and attempt to cuff you.

Either way, when a hyphen or an en dash is used to represent a span or range of numbers, dates, or time, there should be NO SPACE between it and the adjacent material (with one exception; see below). Depending on the context, the en dash reads as “to” or “through.”

The exception: For the occasional instance where you have two compound modifiers in immediate proximity to one another (e.g., ten-hour days and twelve-hour days, or music-hungry and arts-hungry), style it like this to avoid repeating the object being modified:

  • After several ten- and twelve-hour days, she looked forward to a weekend of well-earned R & R.
  • “There’s a large, music- and arts-hungry crowd in this city,” she said.

Keyboard Conundrum

How do I insert an en dash when it’s not on the keyboard? I know, it’s a pain in the butt. You can do either one of these:

  • In MS Word: select Insert/Symbol, then click on the en dash symbol (yes, it’s cumbersome).
  • Or type ALT + 0150.

I address this issue in greater depth in Part B.

References & Resources:


#10 They’re, Their Now: Contractions & Homophonic Convergence
#9. Commagain? Oxford Comma, Comma Splice & Dialogue Punchuating Bag
#8. Word Contortion: Homophonic Trip-ups
#7. Three Dots and Out: Give Your Ellipsis Elbow Room
#6. A Tense Moment: Word Context, Past & Present

Still to come:

#4. Dash It All! Part B: Em Dash
#3. Pronounflagration: Pronoun Profusion, Confusion, Contusion
#2. Apostrophic Calamity: Apostrophe vs. Dumb Quotes
#1. Verbal Abuse: Lie Down with Lay & Related Verb Warps
Extra: My Language Pet Peeves


About Polishing Your Prose

Larry M Edwards is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, editor and publishing consultant. He is the author of three books, and has edited dozens of nonfiction and fiction book manuscripts. Under Wigeon Publishing, he has produced six books. As author, "Dare I Call It Murder? A Memoir of Violent Loss" won First Place in the San Diego Book Awards in 2012 (unpublished memoir) and 2014, Best Published Memoir. The book has also been nominated for a number of awards, including: Pulitzer Prize, Benjamin Franklin Award, Washington State Book Award, and One Book, One San Diego. As Editor, "Murder Survivor’s Handbook: Real-Life Stories, Tips & Resources" won the Gold Award in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, Self-Help. For a sample edit and cost estimate, contact Larry: larry [at] larryedwards [dot] com -- www.larryedwards.com -- www.dareicallitmurder.com -- www.larryedwards.com/wigeonpublishing/
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7 Responses to Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #5

  1. Pingback: From the Editor’s Eye: The 10 Most Common Errors Made by Writers | Polishing Your Prose

  2. Reblogged this on San Diego Writers/Editors Guild and commented:
    #5. Dash It All! Part A: Hyphen and En Dash, more in SDW/EG member Larry Edwards’ series on common errors writers make.

  3. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #4 | Polishing Your Prose

  4. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #3 | Polishing Your Prose

  5. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #2 | Polishing Your Prose

  6. Pingback: Ten Most Common Errors Made by Writers: #1 | Polishing Your Prose

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