Hyphens and dashes.

Chains, leashes, and trapezes

by Dirk E. Oldman

A lot of people are confused about hyphens and dashes. Some of them don’t even know there’s a difference. I hear a lot of people use dash when they’re referring to a hyphen. So today I’m gonna sort this out for you so you know.

Why does it matter? Well, think about the difference between these two sentences:

I could go for a nice girlie – man, I really could.

I could go for a nice girlie-man, I really could.

You see that? With a change from dash to hyphen you can change sexual preference.

But really, overall, the difference between a dash and a hyphen is not so much the difference between liking girlies and liking girlie-men, it’s more the difference between having a partner and having a “pet.”

Here’s what I mean. You might see dashes and hyphens as rigid, straight things – like the ten-foot pole I wouldn’t touch my ex-wife with – but really, they’re not things that push words apart. They’re things that keep words together. They’re more like chains and leashes.

Hyphens are for compound words. You take two words and put them together and it makes them act like one word. Think of a couple out roller-blading. They both have piercings (ear, nose, belly button, nipple, take your pick). They have connected the rings in their piercings with a nice little gold chain. So they’re out together and they’re moving at the same speed, or else. Some other day they might be unchained, but for today, there’s no mistaking who’s with who. If they go down, they go down together. The hyphen is that little gold chain.

That chain tells us what’s with what, so we can tell the difference between these two:

That was where I got my first-hand job experience.

That was where I got my first hand-job experience.

In German they like to glue them together, so they would just make that firsthand job and first handjob. We do that sometimes, but usually we couple them with a nice little chain.

Sometimes there are two partners to be chained to, and the two-timer detaches from one and goes and attaches to the other, but the first one still has the chain hanging out there:

He has a long history of sex- and alcohol-related injuries.

You can see that it makes a difference if the first one doesn’t have the chain – it becomes in independent agent:

He has a long history of sex and alcohol-related injuries.

This means the same as

He has a long history of alcohol-related injuries and sex.

Dashes, on the other hand, are more like leashes.

A new leash on life at Christopher Street Day in Berlin.

A new leash on life at Christopher Street Day in Berlin.

Dashes come in a couple of kinds. There are the smaller ones, the en-dashes (as wide as the letter n), and they mainly go between numbers to mean “to”:

There must be 40–60 ways to leave your lover.

It’s not so much that one number has the other on a leash as that they’re leashed together. You can’t interact with them individually. So the dash shouldn’t really be treated just like a to: for instance, don’t put

The party will go from 2–7 AM.

That would be like talking to one of the two leashed together and not the other. You know you have to talk to them both.

But when there’s a dash, they’re still separate words, separate numbers. They’re not as close as the couple who have decided they want to be chained together by a hyphen.

There’s also a longer kind of dash. You can use an em-dash for it (As wide an the letter m—see?), or you can use an en-dash with spaces on either side of it (This is what I mean – get it?). The difference is cosmetic, like the difference in the material you make your leash with. It’s still a leash. I like the latter kind because they work better for line breaks on websites. You might say the collar is looser.

These longer dashes join whole phrases, not just words or numbers. In this case, there usually is more of a master-pet relationship:

Raindrops and roses and warm woollen mittens, seductive poses with half-clad sex kittens, roller-blade couples with chains on their rings – these are a few of my favourite things.

You know what my favourite things are – silk and satin, leather and lace.

In these cases, only one side of the leash, I mean the dash, has a verb. The other side is just stuff that supports it. “Hi, I’m Oscar, and this is my gimp. Nod hello, gimp.” You’ll notice that a colon could also be used. That would be like having the pet in a box with peepholes (:) instead of on a leash. He or she is still kept.

Sometimes the other part gets its own verb. This is like letting your pet speak when asked – no muzzle:

It was lousy – all she could talk about was food.

That’s a bit more like a semicolon, which is a sort of balance point – we’ll get to those another day. You’ll find that when you let your pet speak, sometimes people can’t tell who’s the pet. But that’s not always a bad thing.

And then there are suspended phrases. These are cases where you could put the phrase in parentheses, but you don’t want it caged up. I see these as like trapezes.

She likes food – sticky stuff especially – and she is very creative with it.

We keep a lot of maple syrup on hand – which we don’t put on pancakes, if you know what I mean – and it gets expensive.

I went to the fridge – we keep the syrup there because it’s quicker to heat it than to chill it – and pulled out two one-litre jugs.

As you can see, all sorts of phrases can go on the trapeze: simple noun phrases, dependent clauses, independent clauses. Just make sure that you have both sides connected with ropes (dashes), or someone’s going to fall:

He poured some on his butt – not hers – which she licked clean.

He poured some on his butt – not hers, which she licked clean.

You can see how a missing rope can lead to remarkable contortions and the wrong person’s butt getting licked.

Sometimes you’ll see two hyphens used in place of a dash: This is what it is — like this. This is a holdover from the days of typewriters, which didn’t have dashes on them. Most people’s word processors will automatically convert double hyphens to dashes.

But don’t use a single hyphen after a word for a dash:

He went roller-blading by himself- she didn’t come.

That’s just sad. It’s like a little chain dangling when there should be someone else attached to it.

One more thing. Usually you don’t have other punctuation like periods and commas right up against a leash, I mean a dash:

We didn’t see which way he went – right or left –, we just saw he was gone.

That used to be acceptable ages ago, but now it’s like socks in sandals. But you can put exclamation marks and question marks against them:

He saw her leave – where did she go? – but he didn’t realize that the other guy had gone with her – !

You like that last exclamation mark? That’s like having it after three dots. Except three dots are more like a trail of breadcrumbs or dropped clothing. The dash is a real leash that you can follow or tug on.

She ate all day but never got fat… Go figure…!

She was incredibly hot but – but incredibly frigid – !

Warning: putting exclamation marks or question marks right after dashes is not for all contexts. But, then, exclamation marks are not for all contexts. Not in English. The Germans are much freer with them – they use them on all imperatives. Go see for yourself!

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