Welcome to the sixth post in the series: Punctuation For Beginners.
Punctuation is the name for the marks we use in writing. Punctuation marks are tools that have set functions. We use them to give a sentence meaning and rhythm.
(Look out for the punctuation posts every Tuesday. Sign up for our newsletter to get our Daily Writing Links, and you won’t miss out.)
Today, I will be writing about hyphens and em-dashes.
What are hyphens?
A hyphen is a punctuation mark (-) that joins words, indicates the division of a word at the end of a line, or indicates a missing element.
The hyphen is used:
- To avoid multiple consecutive letters. Example: re-evaluate [reevaluate]
- If the root word is capitalised. Examples: pre-Christmas, anti-European
- With specific prefixes and suffixes. Examples: self-sacrificing, all-seeing, ex-wife, vice-chairman
- To form compound words. Examples: sit-in, stand-out, mother-in-law
- With fractions and numbers between 21 and 99. Examples: one-half, sixty-four, twenty-eight and three-quarters
- With words that start with a capital letter. Examples: X-ray, T-shirt, U-turn
- To divide words at the right hand margin.
- To indicate a missing word. Example: short- and long-term
Tip: The use of hyphens is decreasing in compound nouns. Most people write website rather than web-site.
What are em-dashes?
An em dash is a punctuation mark (–) used to mark a pause or break.
We call a long dash an ’em dash’ because it is the width of the letter m. A long dash is used to add a statement—like this—in the same way you would use brackets.
An em dash, or long dash, is used to:
- Separate parts of a sentence and force us to pause. Example: Many women—like the one in this article—have been abused.
- Serve a similar purpose to a comma, colon, or a semi-colon. Example: She looks like a saint—she isn’t.
Tip: Em dashes are more common in informal writing. Avoid them in formal writing.
P.S. En dashes (named because they were originally the width of the letter n) join numbers in a range or words that describe a range. An en dash can be substituted with the word ‘through’. Examples: 1939–1945, pages 5–8, May–June.
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