Just like all punctuation, dashes provide information so that we can understand the intended meaning and nuances of a sentence.
Hyphens, en dashes and em dashes (also call en rules and em rules) all have different roles to play, but many people don’t know what they do – or have never noticed that there are actually three types of dashes. And it doesn’t help that only one is easily found on the computer keyboard.
In New Zealand English we tend to follow standard British English (but not Oxford style) for the use of hyphens and dashes.
The hyphen is the shortest of the three dashes and looks like this -
There are two kinds of hyphens: hard and soft hyphens. They look the same, but have slightly different functions. A hard hyphen joins words or parts of words together, and a soft hyphen is used when a word is broken at the end of a line.
Below are examples of common uses of hard hyphens, though it is not a comprehensive list.
Hyphens are used to join words together to make a compound word. Different dictionaries and style guides allow different uses for hyphens in compound words, so check the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary for the correct use of the hyphen in a word for New Zealand English – some compound words have become so established that they no longer take a hyphen.
A hyphen can also join two words together to make a compound adjective.
In first class they have first-class seats.
Note: Do not use a hyphen with compound adjectives which use an -ly.
He wore a newly washed shirt.
Prefixes and suffixes
Hyphens are used to attach prefixes and suffixes to a word.
re-covering (cf. recovering)
Hyphens are used in spelled-out numbers.
Hyphens are also used for compass points (but not wind directions).
t-t-totally (to show stuttering)
three- to five-metre swells (for omitted common elements in a series)
John Smith-Jones (in double-barrel names)
But in compound nouns and adjectives formed from two names, use an en dash (unless one element can’t stand alone).
French–German border (en dash)
Franco-German relations (hyphen)
An en dash is called an en dash as it is the same width as an N – slightly longer than a hyphen.
Compound words of equal value
An en dash connects compound words of equal value. In New Zealand English, it is always closed up (without spaces before and after it) and replaces the and or to.
the Wellington–Auckland flight
the June–July issue of the magazine
The en dash replaces the to in ranges. It is also always closed up.
10.30 am–11.00 pm
13–15 March 2018
An en dash can also be used in place of a comma or a pair of parentheses (or brackets). It is a stronger break than a pair of commas and gives more emphasis than parentheses.
It is New Zealand English (and standard British English) style to use a spaced en dash in this context. Oxford style and American publishers use a closed up em dash in for this same function.
He was walking – as he always did – to the dairy. (New Zealand English)
He was walking—as he always did—to the dairy. (Oxford and American English)
A single en dash can be used to replace a colon or semicolon and is used as an afterthought or aside.
We walked to the dairy again and got some milk – we were always out.
They packed their coats, boots and gloves – it was cold.
You can use an exclamation mark or question mark with the en dash, but not a comma, colon or semicolon.
If only we could still see him – if only! – we could be happy.
I wasn’t sure if I could – could I? – but I had to try.
An en dash is used to show dialogue that is interrupted by another speaker, an action or a thought. This is different from an ellipsis which suggests a pause or hesitation, rather than an interruption.
As with the parenthetical dash, Oxford and American English style is to use a closed-up em dash.
“Stop, we can’t s –” (the speaker stops suddenly)
Or a sequence between speakers
“Stop, we can’t see –”
“Stop your moaning”
“– where we are going.”
Actions or thoughts
“Why” – he thumped his fist on the table – “are you doing this?”
“Why” – he wondered if he was saying the right thing – “can’t we start again?”
An em dash is called this because it is about as wide as an M.
Whether you use spaces around the em dash depends on your publisher’s style. In New Zealand English, em dashes are not used often.
To replace an omission
We went to — and met Mr —.
What the — are we going to do?
How to make en and em dashes on your device
A hyphen is easy to find on the computer keyboard, but the other two are harder to find. You will have to look under the “insert symbol, more symbols” function on your device (there are too many different computer operating versions to go into detail for each one). Usually you can then assign a shortcut to the symbols for easy access next time.
If you have written a document or book in New Zealand English and this all sounds too overwhelming, I can help.
I am a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. My business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of business documents and non-fiction books. I will discuss your writing and what you need to do next with you.
For more information on how I can help you make your writing shine, please contact me on: www.clearlingo.co.nz/contact.
I would love to hear from you.
Hughes, J., & Wallace, D. (2010). Fit to Print : The Writing & Editing Style Guide for Aotearoa New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Dunmore Publishing.
Oxford University Press, (2016). New Oxford Style Manual (3rd ed.). United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
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