Dashes with Cynthia

A few weeks ago I was proofreading with a colleague of mine, who graduated from Ryerson’s magazine journalism program some years before I did, and the subject of en dashes came up. He proclaimed how much he loved using them (and I agreed, because the opportunity to use them correctly is rare), and another proofer asked the difference between an en dash and an em dash.

I started to explain, and my colleague interjected with the exact same example I was going to offer: “Like in New York–based writer!”

Turns out he’d also learned copy editing from Cynthia Brouse at Ryerson. We chatted about her class. One of my fondest memories of her class was a discussion of dashes.

Cynthia Brouse was a wonderful teacher and writer, and a force to be reckoned with when it came to copy editing and fact-checking. She won a well-deserved lifetime achievement award at last year’s National Magazine Awards, and based on the Facebook statuses, blog posts and Twitter updates that I’ve seen recently, she clearly left an indelible impression on all of her former students and colleagues.

Unfortunately, I got shortchanged a bit, as Cynthia left suddenly, yet cheerfully, halfway through the year, after learning that her cancer, previously in remission, had returned. She was replaced with a woman just as lovely and talented, but I think we all would have preferred it go the other way. Cynthia Brouse passed away this past weekend, meaning the next generation of Ryerson students won’t benefit from her teaching.

So, in the spirit of Cynthia Brouse’s enthusiasm for style and punctuation, I thought I would relay one of her lessons: dashes and hyphens.

First off, hyphens. Hyphens are short, shorter than either type of dash. Hyphens are joiners. They exist to join words together to form new words, most often in the form of compound modifiers. The hyphen would be used to avoid confusion. For instance, the meaning of “extra-marital sex” is quite different from “extra marital sex.” (The latter meaning lots of loving, and the former meaning adultery.) See how hyphens can be pretty handy? They serve other purposes as well, but they are primarily a joiner.

Em dashes, on the other hand, are the width of about two hyphens, or about the width of an upper-case letter M (an easy way to remember the name). The opposite of hyphens, em dashes exist primarily to separate. They can be used parenthetically. For instance: “Jenny loved cheesecake—almost as much as she loved chocolate—but it didn’t love her, so she tried to avoid it.” In this case, brackets or commas could have been used instead of the pair of em dashes. Em dashes can also be used to set off a part of a sentence. Example: “Lions and tigers and bears—oh my!” (FYI: The keyboard shortcut for an em dash is option-shift-hyphen on a Mac and alt-ctrl-minus on a PC.)

Now the en dash (which is longer than a hyphen, shorter than an em dash and about the width of an upper-case letter N) is a fickle creature, as it can be used as either a separator (used the same as an em dash, substituted for the purpose of saving space) or a joiner, with complex compound modifiers. An example of this is, of course, “New York–based writer.” Because the en dash is longer than a hyphen, it creates a bit of distance between “New York” and “writer,” thus eliminating the possibility that one could confuse the intended as a new writer based in York.

En dashes are also used to separate a range and, according to the Chicago Manual of Style, are used to replace the imaginary phrase “up to and including (or through).” Example: “For a full description of hyphens, en dashes and em dashes, see Chicago, pages 261–265.” In short, en dashes are, in my opinion, the super heroes of the punctuation world. (The keyboard shortcut for an en dash is option-hyphen on a Mac and ctrl-minus on a PC.)

So there you have it. I hope I’ve been able to retell this story as well as Cynthia did first hand, and that you find it as interesting as I did (and still do!). I’ll end with a request: In honour of Cynthia, for those who knew her and those who didn’t, tell me what your favourite punctuation mark, grammar rule, style quirk or fact-checking oddity is. This is mine.