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The Elusive En Dash
When a compound adjective precedes a noun it is describing, we often need a hyphen:
prize-winning recipe, twentieth-century literature. If a compound adjective comprises more than two words, we use as many hyphens as are needed:
a three-day-old newspaper, a dyed-in-the-wool snob.
But try to punctuate the compound adjectives in these phrases: a New York based artist,
a Charles Dickens inspired author,
a post World War II novel. Most writers would take pains to avoid “New-York-based artist,”
“Charles-Dickens-inspired author,” and
“post-World-War-II novel.” Hyphenating open compounds like New York, Charles Dickens,
and World War II feels wrong and looks weird.
Most of us would write New York-based artist,
Charles Dickens-inspired author, and
post-World War II novel. We would
respect the integrity of the compound proper noun, recognizing that a hyphen intrusion would not assist readers, and might confuse and distract them.
Some time ago, publishers decided that a hyphen was too puny to join open compounds to other words in a compound adjective. So they replaced the hyphen
with the en dash, which is longer than a hyphen but shorter than a long dash. Here are en dashes in action:
New York–based artist,
Charles Dickens–inspired author,
post–World War II novel.
Most books and many magazines would pick the en dash over the hyphen in those three examples. The en dash is used for other purposes too. But you
won’t find this mark in most daily newspapers—there is no mention of the en dash anywhere in the Associated Press’s influential
stylebook for journalists. In fact, the most respected reference books and style guides of the twentieth century give short shrift to the en dash. H.W.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage does not acknowledge its existence. Neither does Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer. Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage gives the en dash two sentences, and discourages its use.
Before the age of computers, only professional printers could make en dashes; everyone else muddled through with hyphens. Many people have never heard of
en dashes, despite having seen them a thousand times. The irony is that although the en dash mostly goes unnoticed, its function is cosmetic. It resolves
no ambiguities. It clears up no confusion. It does nothing that a hyphen can’t do and hasn’t done, except to look a bit more symmetrical in
certain constructions. It is an elegant flourish that most readers haven’t been trained to recognize, let alone benefit from.
If the en dash seems right for you, here is how to type one. On a PC, hold down the ALT key and type 0150 on the numeric keypad
located on the far right of the keyboard. On a Mac, hold down the Option key and type the minus sign located at the top of the keyboard.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
Supply the necessary punctuation. Answers are below.
1. Toby is a four year old terrier.
2. The apartment featured a bowling alley length hallway.
3. It was a Star Wars inspired fantasy.
4. The dessert had an ice cream like texture.
5. My terrier is four years old.
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Once you've seen one shopping center, you've seen a mall.
Bakers trade bread recipes on a knead-to-know basis.
Acupuncture is a jab well done.
Pop Quiz Answers
1. Toby is a four-year-old terrier. (two hyphens)
2. The apartment featured a bowling alley-length hallway.
(OR bowling alley–length OR bowling-alley-length)
3. It was a Star Wars-inspired fantasy.
(OR Star Wars–inspired)
4. The dessert had an ice cream-like texture.
(OR ice cream–like OR ice-cream-like)
5. My terrier is four years old. (CORRECT)
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.