Don’t be confused by the hyphen and the m-dash or n-dash
Interestingly, although these two punctuation marks look almost the same, they work in very opposite ways:
- A hyphen joins two words without any spacing, like black-cab or top-notch
- A dash separates two words or parts of a sentence – keeps them well apart from each other just like this example, which requires a space before and after it
The hyphen can serve its purpose for many years, and then very quietly disappear without a trace. Often it helps create a “new” word or idea, like e-mail (which as we might have forgotten by now, actually started out as “electronic mail”). Another one is on-line.
But I bet you did a double-take there, and asked yourself whether it should in fact be “online”. A perfect example of my point: over time, these newly coined compounds become familiar and acceptable, and that’s when the hyphen discreetly slips away. Did you know that our word “weekend” started out as “week-end”, and “bedroom” used to be “bed-room”?
The hyphen can be very useful in avoiding ambiguity. A headline such as this can be funny:
Man eating piranha mistakenly sold as pet fish
We need to go back and insert the hyphen between “man” and “eating” to understand that the man wasn’t sold as a pet fish while he ate a piranha!
The long division test was last week
… but the long-division test was actually over in 15 minutes, not that long really!
The dash makes you stop short in your phrase without actually ending what you are saying – and adds emphasis as you continue with your closing words. This can be particularly useful when writing a story or novel as you can build tension with the use of dashes. They can also be used in place of parentheses (such as these, also sometimes known as brackets although technically not the correct term) especially if you have used parentheses a lot in your article already.
So when you are proofreading or reviewing a piece of work you are about to send, do use a hyphen now and again to make sure nothing ambiguous has crept in. And chuck in a few dashes – it helps to make your writing sound more natural and conversational.