When I was growing up – a long time back – we were taught some pretty simple rules regarding punctuation. This was ‘back in the day’ when we used a pencil or pen and paper, or – if something had to be very formal – a typewriter.
Most typewriters being mechanical devices which limited the number of functions per key – compared with computer keyboards and some electric typewriters – had a hyphen or dash or minus, a common key for all three functions.
Using these was not rocket science. A minus sign was pretty obvious, that is if it was surrounded by numbers in an equation, you could be pretty sure it was a minus, and if otherwise surrounded by numbers it would be a dash and indicate a range thereof. Context was the key.
eg. 3 – 2 = 1
or June 6 – 9
A hyphen (or an hyphen…) was used in the still common usage, to separate a prefix or suffix, or to break a long word up for readability, or to put some of it on a new line, or several other uses (yes I am also a fan of the Oxford comma, but that’s another story). Quite simply, a hyphen had no spaces around it. It was space-less.
A dash was a hyphen with a space either side, used to separate out an interruption to a sentance, similar to a comma or parentheses.
eg. Jack and Jill – an unmarried couple – went up the hill.
Now that the world of the internet is so US-centric, the humble dash has not only been complicated, but used in a way which – to my way of thinking – spoils the use of it completely. We now have frequent use of the ‘endash’ and the ’emdash’ and the original dash – a hyphen with a space either side – has almost disappeared.
An endash (–) is a dash about the width of a letter n and an emdash (—) is about the width of a letter m and both are used in the place where a dash – a hyphen with a space either side – would have been used.
The endash is used in dates and numbers etc, whilst the emdash is used in sentences. So June 6 – 9 becomes June 6–9 and my Jack and Jill example above would now look like:
eg. Jack and Jill—an unmarried couple—went up the hill.
How messy. And it gets worse when there’s several of them in the same paragraph. To my eye – and mind – the dash with spaces looks neat, is obvious and cannot be mistaken for a hyphenated word. The American usage—the way which cheeses me off—is – in my mind’s eye – far messier, ungainly and just plain wrong.
So while I’m writing for a predominately US audience – as I frequently do on a couple of other sites – I’ll use the endash and emdash but here on my Aussie site, I’m gonna stick with the poms (British). It was, after all, their language to begin with dash it all.