Just another link in the chain

In the family of punctuation marks, there are three horizontal strokes, each with a very different function. In ascending order of length, they are the hyphen, the en dash and the em dash; and they look like this: ‘-’, ‘–’, and ‘—’.

The shortest of the three, the hyphen, links two or more words together to make a single unit of meaning, usually a compound adjective:

  • My five-year-old child has just started school.
  • You will enjoy this television’s cutting-edge features.

Please note, however, that if they are not being used as a compound adjective the words should not be hyphenated.

  • My child is five years old.
  • The television is at the cutting edge of technology.

The en dash, so called because it is the same width as a printed lower-case ‘n’, is used to join two equal components where there is a logical connection or opposition:

  • Did you watch the Barcelona–Juventus match?
  • I am taking the Glasgow–London express tomorrow morning
  • Susanna West, CEO 2008–2016.

In these examples, the first ‘en’-dash serves as an alternative for ‘versus’ or ‘against’. In the next two sentences, it replaces the word ‘to’. Please note, however, that the word ‘to’ should be used if it is paired with ‘from’: ‘She was CEO from 2008 to 2016′; ‘the train from Glasgow to London’.

The em dash, as its name implies, is the width of a printed lower-case ‘m’, and double the length of an en dash. It is used singly to replace an introductory punctuation mark such as a colon, or in pairs as a form of parenthesis:

  • Corfu is the most beautiful of the islands — green, serene, and relaxed.
  • Just then — and it really was unexpected — there came the hoot of an owl.

So next time you want to just throw up your hands and exclaim ‘Oh, dash it all!’, just be careful which one you mean…

(In parenthesis)

baked pastries

The term ‘parenthesis’ (or ‘parentheses’ in the plural) is commonly used as an alternative term for ‘brackets’.

In fact, parenthesis is the explanatory or additional wording that goes inside the brackets. And this information can be separated from the main text by a number of different punctuation marks: not just brackets, but also dashes, or, simply, commas.

So, which kind of punctuation should you choose? That’s partly determined by the degree of relevance of the parenthesis to the main clause. Consider the following sentences:

  1. The man, who made his fortune from cookies, was an expert baker.
  2. The man — who made his fortune from cookies — started out poor.
  3. The man (who made his fortune from cookies) was South African.

In sentence 1, we understand that there is a strong relationship between his skill as a baker and the fact that he made money from cookies. We use commas to show that there is no real separation of detail.

In sentence 2, the fact that he was originally poor is stressed, but the source of his fortune is not so important — it just happened to be cookies.

By the time we reach sentence 3, how he made his fortune is not at all relevant, and the brackets allow us to safely remove the information about the cookies from the main thrust of the sentence.

In all three cases, the sentence MUST still read correctly if we take out the parenthesis. This is a crucial test for proofreaders’ understanding of punctuation.