Oh dash … double dash!

English: CMOS 16 cover image.

English: CMOS 16 cover image. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was intrigued when Port Yonder Press in a Facebook discussion talked about the em dash being used in dialogue (among other things) when speech is interrupted. This was according to the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the bible for editors in America. My editing experience is from an Australian perspective where we often use the ellipsis points (…) as an indication of interrupted speech or where words are omitted. I thought I’d go to the Australian Style Manual for authors, editors and printers, and what I found was quite interesting.

I discovered that the manual talks about the 2-em rule which can be used for sudden breaks and omissions. I go on to quote here my sixth edition on page 107:

A 2-em rule can be used to mark an abrupt break in direct or reported speech: 

I distinctly heard him say, ‘Go away or I’ll —— ‘ 

In this instance a space is used to separate the rule from the preceding word because a complete word is missing. If only part of the word is missing, no space is used:

It was alleged that D—— had been threatened with blackmail.

The double em dash is solid in the manual but I just had to use two em rules in succession here.

The use of the ellipsis is differentiated in the manual (page 110) in that they are primarily used to show an omission of a word or words from quoted material. It goes on to say that ellipsis points can also signify indecision and incompleteness.

Well, as they say (hey, it’s always those clever people called ‘they’!), you learn something new every day.

ice cream … would you like a hyphen with that?

Lower case ‘a’ from Adobe Caslon Pro, superpos...

Lower case ‘a’ from Adobe Caslon Pro, superposed onto some guides. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hyphenation of words or linked words is so variable, that if you are a publisher, you really need to have your preferences highlighted in your style guide. As the language evolves, many words that took hyphens become compound words without hyphens, but in the process, many still linger between the two. Do you write co-operate and co-ordinate or cooperate and coordinate? Is it ice cream or ice-cream (whatever way you put it, the latter still tastes nice!).

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Pam Peters) is an excellent guide comparing US, UK and Australian English Usage, and I will quote from it here in reference to hyphen usage.

Though there are few fixed conventions over hyphens, authorities do agree on such underlying principles as: 

  • restrict the use of hyphens as far as possible
  • shed the linking hyphen from the better established formations
  • use hyphens to separate letter sequences which distract the reader from construing the word correctly

The guide goes on to enumerate a number of general rules for ‘hard hyphens’ as opposed to ‘ soft hyphens’ that are used to break a word at the end of a line.
1. Complex words with prefixes are not normally hyphenated, but set solid. For example, amoral, debrief, cohabit. In some cases, however, as with co- and ex- it depends on whether the word is an older or newer type of formation. Other exceptions … are a) using a hyphen when the prefix ends in the same vowel as as the first letter of the root word, as in : anti-intellectual and de-emphasise. b) introducing a hyphen in formations which would otherwise be identical with another word (as in re-cover). c) using a hyphen when the following word involves a change in typography, such as capital letters, numbers, to or from italics, or quotation marks.
2. Compounds – Compound verbs … consisting of a noun + verb (baby-sit) are typically hyphenated. Compound adverbs are usually set solid (barefoot, downstairs, overboard). Compound adjectives are typically hyphenated (tone-deaf, red-hot, icy-cold, nuclear-free). Compound nouns can be written with hyphens, spaced, or set solid, depending somewhat on what they consist of. 
It goes on to enlarge on the above, with various exceptions and combinations. If we go back to the question in my title of ice cream, what is the answer? It is a noun compound that can be applied spaced or with a hyphen depending on what dictionary you use and what applies in the style guide of the publication you may write for.
I hope this gives some clarification to the usage of hard hyphens, while it will raise plenty of questions, I’m sure.

Dashing off

Editors know them more than writers, but the humble dash takes various forms and tasks. A lot of writers will plug on with the lowly hyphen (-) which is the shortest of all the dashes. Its job really is not to separate parts of a sentence nor as a substitute for ‘to’ such as in 1945 to 2001. The hyphen is used to join two words to create a single entity, which can lead eventually to dispensing with the hyphen altogether. Take the word ‘cooperate’ for example. Some publications continue to use the hyphen as in ‘co-operate’ to avoid mispronunciation while the accepted form now has no hyphen. That is because it is in common usage and people know how it is pronounced. Two words may be hyphenated to become a single adjective as in ‘short-term solution’. And the danger here is to hyphenate when there is no implied adjective.

The second job of a hyphen is to split a long word in column formatting so as to create an even margin on the right side of the column, or as close to even as possible. Hyphenation then occurs between syllables to avoid an awkward cut of the word.

After hyphens there are two longer forms of dashes with names taken from early typography – the en dash and the em dash. I just used an en dash (roughly the width of the letter ‘n’) to separate the last phrase from the main sentence. Here it can be used instead of the colon to denote something following. When it is used with a space to either side of it, the en dash acts as a separator. This is crucial and a cause for many errors among writers. When you remove the spaces, the en dash joins two parts, not like the hyphen, but roughly to mean ‘to’, as in 1945–2001.

The last dash form – the em dash – is similar to the en dash in that it can be used as a separator, but without spaces. Its use is a matter of publication style or an editor/writer’s preference. The em dash—used like this—separates the verb phrase here instead of using commas, and therefore highlighting the phrase more and avoiding confused phraseology.