I’ve been reading an ebook in which I’ve encountered a small formatting problem that interrupts my immersion in the story. Whoever set this book up for Kindle asks hyphens to do the work of dashes.
Why Not Use Hyphens?
This practice creates problems in two ways:
First, it’s easy to miss the tiny hyphen when it marks a move from one clause or phrase to another:
He really hated the food at that organic restaurant down on the corner of Main and First-all green slimy stuff full of grit.
He really hated the food at that organic restaurant down on the corner of Main and First Street—all green slimy stuff full of grit.
Second, my brain sometimes wants to read two hyphenated words as a compound noun or adjective rather than as a border between clauses.
She took the slow train out-bound to make her late!
She took the slow train out—bound to make her late!
In such cases, I’m thrown off course and have to break my concentration to go back and find where I took the wrong turn.
Using dashes properly can prevent these wobbles.
What Do Dashes Do?
Above all, they “set off” sentence elements, much like colons and commas: pointing to new, related information or isolating an “interrupting” element, but more visibly and with more emphasis.
They do much the same work that colons and commas do—pointing to new, related information or isolating an “interrupting” element—but more visibly and with more emphasis.
They also indicate an abrupt breaking off, usually in dialogue, but also possible in narrative if the author chooses a conversational voice.
Here’s an example from my book King of the Roses:
“The race will go on as scheduled,” he said. “Order the riders to the paddock.”
“This racetrack will not be governed by the indefensible behavior of one man.”
Doing Dashes Right
In my writers’ group, how to create dashes comes up fairly regularly. To my surprise, many in the group don’t know how to create the standard “em dash.” Some folks new to formatting do fall back on the single hyphen (recently I saw a single hyphen with a space after it). The most common option, however, is two hyphens, sometimes with spaces before and after, sometimes without spaces. (Eeek! I note that the CSS for this theme corrects the two hyphens to a dash, so I can’t fully make my case here that an em dash is preferable. I foxed WP by adding a space between the hyphens, which almost works):
His favorite meal – – a big sticky burger oozing grease – – couldn’t be had at Greens and Grit.
I don’t have huge issues with this choice. To me, though, the standard em dash is more assertive. Compare
“But – – ”
And an em dash is so easy to create!
Creating em dashes
Asked how to generate an em dash at a writing group meeting, I shared what I assumed was universal practice: Shift-Option-Hyphen. Nope, I learned. That’s Mac practice. For PC users, that didn’t work. So I had to figure out how to do it on a PC.
Answer for PC: Insert/Symbol
The first time you do this, you should select the subset “General Punctuation” and scroll until you find the likely culprits. Clicking once on an icon in the table of choices will tell you whether you’ve actually located a true “em dash” as opposed to a horizontal line or something called an “en dash,” which Wikipedia says can be used as a valid dash if it is set off by spaces, but which is also used for “spans” as in this example from Wikipedia:
The French and Indian War (1754–1763) was fought in western Pennsylvania and along the present US–Canadian border (Edwards, pp. 81–101).
Once you’ve located a true em dash and inserted it into your text, you can copy it and use it wherever needed using CRTL or COMMAND + V.
This site gives Autoformat options for creating em and en dashes on a PC, if you have that process set up. A simpler option, in my view, for always having the dash you want at hand on a PC is to paste one into a Word file, name the file “Dash,” and open it as needed. In your document, type whatever you like as a placeholder, as long as you’re consistent: two hyphens, two xx’s, two smiley faces (do avoid combinations that could conceivably occur elsewhere in the text, such as “bb”)—then use Find/Replace. Type your placeholder into the “Find” box, paste your dash of choice into the Replace box, then click “Replace All.”
Of course, proofread to make sure you didn’t convert something you didn’t intend to!
And now I must go dashing off—! (Sorry! ) Tra-la!