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 each of them does – 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.
For 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.
There are two kinds of hyphens: hard and soft hyphens. They look the same, but have 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 stammering)
three- to five-metre swells (for omitted common elements in a series)
John Smith-Jones (in double-barrelled 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 a lowercase n – a pretty reasonable explanation!
Compound words of equal value
An en dash connects compound words of equal value. 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. 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 (and if you’ve been paying attention, you may be able to work it out) because it is about as wide as a lowercase 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 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 fiction and non-fiction books. I can discuss with you where your book is at and what you need to do next.
For more information on how I can help you make your book 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.
Marja Stack is a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. She is the owner of Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, which caters to all writers of non-fiction books, business publications and cookbooks. For more information or enquiries for how she can help you make your book shine, please see her website: www.clearlingo.co.nz.
New Zealand English Series
- NZE: How to use a semicolon
- NZE: The 'singular they'
- NZE: How to use italics
- NZE: How to write numbers
- NZE: How to write abbreviations
- NZE: How to punctuate dialogue
- NZE: hyphens, en dashes and em dashes
- NZE: How to write times and dates
- NZE: Possessives
- NZE: Is our spelling different?
- NZE: Burned vs Burnt
- NZE: Using Māori words in English text
- NZE: -ise vs -ize endings
- NZE: Single or double quote marks
- NZE: Punctuation inside or outside quotation marks?
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