Amar Sagoo

5 May 2008

Hyphens, dashes, et cetera

I have a thing about correct punctuation, and although I'm aware that most people would find me over-zealous in this regard, I would bring to my defence that it's not just a pointless obsession or a purely aesthetic matter. A bit of poor punctuation will in the best case distract those from the text who notice it and affect their impression of the author, and in the worst case actually give the reader trouble understanding a sentence. Having said that, what I'm going to write about today is more on the aesthetic side, but could nevertheless help you make a good impression on a reader who notices these things.

I have noticed what seems to be a recent trend, especially on the web, to put unnecessary hyphens between adverbs and adjectives when they modify a noun, as in a brightly-lit street (which should be simply a brightly lit street). This habit seems to originate in the hyphenation of compound modifiers, as in real-estate agent or an out-of-date book. But those examples are hyphenated to avoid ambiguity or because the words in that order would not make a valid sentence structure without hyphens. Adverbs that end in -ly are always modifying an adjective or another adverb, so there is no ambiguity. Only adverbs that don't end in -ly, such as well, most or fast should get a hyphen, as in fast-running man.

Here are some examples from sites that I read regularly, including BBC News:

newly-elected councillors
reasonably-sized buttons
poorly-served areas
the highly-anticipated device

These should just be:

newly elected councillors
reasonably sized buttons
poorly served areas
the highly anticipated device

After all, you wouldn't write a really-good movie either.

Another trend I've noticed is around the use of dashes in what are called strong interruptions. When you have the right symbols available, there are two ways to punctuate such an interruption:

You can use en-dashes – Option-Minus on a Mac keyboard – surrounded by spaces.

Or you can use the longer em-dashes—Shift-Option-Minus on a Mac keyboard—without spaces.

Using an en-dash with spaces is common in Britain, while using the em-dash is more common in America. Personally I prefer the British style, because it visually offsets the interruption from the rest of the sentence more. What some people tend to use on the web, however, is an em-dash with spaces — like this — which I think looks odd because it creates a huge gap between words. If you prefer the look with spaces, just use an en-dash.

While we're on the topic of dashes, I'll briefly mention two common cases where an en-dash should be used rather than a hyphen. One is for ranges, such as 1980–2008. Another is when combining two nouns in a way that implies a to- or and-relationship, as in the London–Paris Eurostar or parent–child relationship.

My sources for most of this are The Penguin Guide to Punctuation by R. L. Trask and Type and Typography by Phil Baines and Andrew Haslam.


  1. Interesting article, thanks for putting the facts right, although I wonder if in a couple of years it will become a rule to insert dashes in all compound adjectives. The current rules have been made by humans anyway, so what's to stop us from changing them? ;-)

  2. It's common in America to use double en-dashes -- like this -- I've noticed. I'm British myself, so I prefer em-dashes. I live in Germany now and I've found myself capitalising nouns in English all too often (they do it for every noun in German).

  3. (double hyphens are a typewriter/computerkeyboard fudge for the lack of a long/em dash)

    coupla things:
    1/ i have noticed the same pattern and believe the growing tendency to hyphenate closely-associated (heh) words stems from the growing "democratisation" of computer knowledge and the consequent tendency for its benefits to spill over into normal english. clear "scoping" is utterly fundamental to computer use. but english has essentially no capability for clearly grouping (hierarchies of) concepts within sentences/phrases. parentheses are an example of encapsulating a stepping out of the standard sentence flow, but they scale clumsily outside single-(phrase, clause, sentence) use. closely-grouping words with hyphens allows far more succinct writing without sacrificing clarity, and it is interesting to see this usage grow. english's protean nature has historically lent itself to moving towards far greater semantic density than other languages, and i see this as just one more consonant adaptation in this direction.

    2/ coupla things to bear in mind here:
    a/ in traditional typography (eg, pre WWII), spaces around long dashes were valid typesetting choices —optional, not forbidden— and though much less common than present were still a valid typesetting option for several hundred years

    b/ em dashes are SUBSTANTIALLY shorter than traditional typographic long dashes. pick up a 19thC book and measure them. they were typically ~1.5 ems in length. they make a clear gap in the text, as is their purpose. em dashes do NOT. em dashes are still narrow enough to be swallowed by the surrounding text.
    traditionally, where narrower-than-normal long dashes were used, such as em dashes, narrow spaces were inserted between them and the surrounding text.

    have a look at the wikipedia article on French Spacing for more information on the history of spacing, and for an insight into how limited and backward are our current standards.

  4. Re:
    newly-elected councillors
    reasonably-sized buttons
    poorly-served areas
    the highly-anticipated device

    these are exactly as they should be; it's a common rule of English grammar, combinations of adverb + past particple used as adjectives.

    Indicentally, the same applies to adverb-present participle combinations: a fast-running engine

  5. oh dear, typos: easily-made mistakes; incidentally in stead of indicentally, of course ...

  6. Hyphens: I wonder if Microsoft Word is a culprit here. Word makes suggestions for dashes between adverbs and adjectives. Actually humans are the culprits for making the rule, and for accepting the suggestion.

  7. "After all, you wouldn't write a really-good movie either."

    This is a canard. Try finding an example that modifies the same part of speech, rather than an arbitrary one. The examples from the BBC are arguably correct. Your example is not, but nor does it serve to support your central premise (which is similarly nonsensical).

    If you're going to be pedantic, at least be right. :)