Tag Archives: language

The Secret Life of Dashes

dashesI was explaining the difference between hyphens, en dashes and em dashes the other day, and the recipient of my edited-for-brevity wisdom suggested I should blog it, as it was the first time she’s understood the differences.

So here it is. It’s certainly not comprehensive – the hyphen has a number of rules, all of which you can disover at  Purdue University’s handy OWL site.

But here’s a quick rundown on the hyphen, the en dash and the em dash for everyday, contemporary use.

The hyphen  is only used to combine words into a compound word, or to add prefixes to terms for clarity.

  • Some juice company wants you to buy a rubbish-free lunch, as opposed to a rubbish free lunch (that is, a free lunch that is rubbish).
  • Students benefit from one-one-one time.

Note that hyphens are not needed when combining an -ly adverb with an adjective.

  • Golf is sometimes played with a brightly coloured ball.

The en dash (so-named because it was originally the same width as a printer’s capital N) is usually used to separate number ranges and has a space on either side. The keyboard command (using the number pad) is ALT 0150.

  • Turn to pages 16 – 18.

In online texts, the en dash is also often used in place of the em dash to separate words or sub-clauses that might otherwise be separated using brackets or commas, and to add emphasis to the item following the dash.

  • I used to live in Canberra, if you call that living.
  • I used to live in Canberra – if you call that living.
  • Canberra’s environment offers outdoor activities (bushwalking, bird-watching, rock climbing) for the brave and bored.
  • Canberra’s environment offers outdoor activities – bushwalking, bird-watching, rock climbing – for the brave and bored.

The em dash (which was the width of a printer’s capital M) is used without a space on either side and generally separates words or clauses.  As with the en dash, it often adds emphasis to the word or phrase following the dash. This dash is much less commonly used in online texts these days, as it’s considered harder to read on screens. The keyboard command is ALT 0151.

  • I used to live in Canberra—if you call that living.
  • Canberra’s environment offers outdoor activities—bushwalking, bird-watching, rock climbing—for the brave and bored.

This is a very broad guide and is certainly not definitive. The use of dashes might vary depending on the style guide for your company/publisher too – but this’ll do for starters.

Lessons in Language: Fine Toothcombs and Fine-toothed Combs

fine tooth combYou know what surprised the merry hell out of me when I googled in preparation for this language rant?

There is indeed such a thing as a ‘toothcomb’.  A toothcomb refers to a dental feature in some mammals where a row of long, thin teeth mimic the teeth of a comb, and are used by the mammal in question for grooming. Lemurs have them. So do some antelopes. I know this is true because Wikipedia told me so.

Do you know what mammalian dental configurations called toothcombs are not used for? Describing how people search in detail for something. No, you do not search through records with a fine toothcomb. I don’t care how fine that dental work is, it’s not used for searching for detail.

For that, you need a fine-toothed comb.

Yeah, I know I should probably learn to breathe deeply from my diaphragm and just let things go, but this one, whenever I see it, makes my teeth hurt. My regular ol’ human teeth, which I do not use for grooming.

You see, the marvellous agility of the English language already defines ‘to comb’ as, among other things, to perform a thorough search. It has always seemed to me such a small and eminently logical step that one would search in depth with a fine-toothed comb (or fine-tooth comb, since ‘fine-tooth’ will do as well as ‘fine-toothed’ for an adjective).

Doesn’t it make sense? To, you know, search, more thoroughly, with a comb that has finer teeth than the average, to separate minutiae of data or material? Doesn’t it? Is it really just me?

So, perhaps, for the sake of my hurting teeth, if not for the eloquence and logic of language, please do away with going through evidence with a toothcomb. Your evidence does not need grooming. Employ a fine-toothed comb in your search for unassailable facts. I’ll thank you personally. Possibly with chocolate.