Q&A: Long dash vs short dash vs hyphen – when to use what?

Each week, we chat about the quirks & anomalies of the English language – for example, why did we just use that dash and is it the same as a hyphen? Read on to find out…

Q: Hello AWC, would you like to know one of my pet hates?
A: Guinea pigs?

Q: Nooo, not a pet that I hate. Ugh, never mind. I’ll just tell you. It’s when people use a hyphen for everything.
A: What, like to brush their teeth or cook dinner?

Q: Okay, not everything I guess. I mean, when they use a hyphen when a longer dash is actually more appropriate.
A: Ah, you’re referring to the three members of the “dash” family. Em dash, en dash and hyphen. Would you like us to explain when to use each of them?

Q: Yes please. But can you theme it like the classic fairytale Goldilocks and the Three Bears?
A: Um, okay. #thisjustgotweird

Q: Thanks. Hang on, let me just grab my porridge. Okay, go.
A: Once upon a time, a girl named Goldilocks was walking through the forest and she came across a house that belonged to three types of dash.

Q: Nice.
A: She went inside and found three sentences. The first contained an em dash (the width of the letter M, and also known as the “long dash”). It read: “Our Q&A articles—exploring grammar and punctuation—appear every Thursday.”

Q: So it’s like using parentheses?
A: That’s right! You can leave no spaces—which is the usual method in Australia—or go with a space before and after — also acceptable — in your sentences.

Q: Got it.
A: Next, Goldilocks tried the sentence with an en dash (the width of the letter N, and also known as the “short dash”). She thought it tasted similar to the first one, also used for parenthesis-type effect, always with spaces. “Our Q&A articles – exploring grammar and punctuation – appear every Thursday.”

Q: Okay.
A: But this short dash was also used without spaces in dates, times or numerical ranges, such as 2013–15, August–December, 11am–1pm or pages 37–50.

Q: Anything else?
A: The en dash can be used like a colon to break up a sentence. It also appears in some linked prefixes and compound adjectives – we’ll get to them soon.

Q: Maybe that’s upstairs.
A: Yes, something like that. Anyway, the floorboards creaked as Goldilocks tried the final sentence – containing the hyphen. She tried to force it into a parenthesis-effect like the em dash or en dash above, but it was too small and it broke into pieces.

Q: Exactly.
A: But when she used it to join two words to form a compound adjective, it tasted juuuuust right. She now had a “Sydney-based writer” or a “prize-winning novel” or even a “bordering-on-the-ridiculous fairytale metaphor”.

Q: Careful.
A: Then she ate some porridge, slept in some beds and the wolf dressed as Grandma came home and huffed, puffed and blew the house down. The end.

Q: Um, okay. Mixing a few other tales in there, and could have incorporated a “dashing” Prince (haha), but I think I got the gist of the story. But what was that about some short dashes also being used for compound adjectives?
A: Ah yes. Well, if you have one word joining to another, a hyphen is the porridge you’ll want (“Sydney-based writer” etc). However, if you have two words preceding the next word, you’d go with a tasty helping of short dash.

Q: Examples?
A: “North Sydney–based writer” or “Booker Prize–winning novel” – it helps tell the reader that it’s not just the second word that’s joined.

Q: And they all lived happily ever after. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to dash…

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