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…

Words, words, words

photo of black ceramic male profile statue under grey sky during daytime

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a character who spends time playing with words rather than getting on with the task in hand – avenging his father’s murder.

Well, that’s the traditional view. After all, he’s usually shown clutching the famous skull, musing about life and death, rather than dealing with practical consequences. Even the length of the play Hamlet is offered as evidence that its main character procrastinates too much.

But Hamlet has studied at university, and knows the importance of gathering evidence; and little by little we see him assembling the jigsaw, until (rather like Hercule Poirot) he has enough facts to gather the family for the grand ‘reveal’ — and with certainty point the finger at the perpetrator of the crime.

He may not be a man of action, but Hamlet is no shirk. Actually he achieves his goal because he works hard at it. When a group of actors arrives at court, he takes matters into his own hands. He even goes so far as to edit the script of their play to tell the story of his father’s death — so he can read the reactions on the audience’s faces.

Hamlet knows that each word is an essential unit of meaning, and that a sentence carefully delivered can have the power of a sword.

Presented with a text to communicate — however brief — all editors must weigh up the various options and construct as careful a version as possible in order to address not just our clients’ expectations, but our own as well.