by Arun Sinha

Hyphens often creep into web copy in places where em dashes belong. When this happens, it makes the copy awkward and slows the reader down, forcing them to reread the sentence to figure out its meaning.

Like this bit from a recent Newsweek.com story: "...everybody always associates it with actors-you know..."

"Actors-you know" is one of those phrases that make you go "huh?" It doesn't quite make sense on first reading, so you read it again. And then you realize that the hyphen is standing in for an em dash.

Fortunately, this problem can easily be avoided. How?

First, a few definitions.

A hyphen is the smallest dash available. It's the key next to the zero on a standard keyboard. It is used to join two words together that express a single idea. Like post-op or live-action. Sometimes it's used to avoid doubling vowels, as in pre-empt or co-operate.

An en dash is slightly longer than a hyphen. Its purpose is to show a range, as in: Boston beat Miami 98–83.

An en dash also shows a connection between two places, like New York–Boston corridor. There are other uses for it too, but these are the most frequent ones.

To type an en dash in Microsoft Word, press the Ctrl and the minus sign keys on the numeric keypad (on a standard keyboard). Since this doesn't work in an html editor or your blogging software, you'll need to use the html code for the en dash, – or –

Which brings us to the em dash. It's twice as long as the en dash, and is used most often in a sentence to set apart two independent but related ideas. Example: He would make a good spouse—but not for me.

To produce an em dash in Word, press Ctrl-Alt-minus sign on the numeric keypad. Html codes: — or —

But what if you don't have a standard keyboard, or are writing a blog post, or don't want to mess with html?

Go ahead and use a hyphen instead of an en dash. Not too many people will quibble, and there will be no loss of meaning.

And create an em dash by one of two ways: leave spaces before and after a hyphen - like this, or type two consecutive hyphens--like this. Some blog platforms, such as WordPress, automatically convert a double hyphen to an em dash.

And then your hyphens, en dashes and em dashes will all be in their proper places, and your readers won’t stumble over your words.

Arun Sinha is president of Access Communications, a digital marketing, content creation and web development company in Stamford, Connecticut, USA. Visit http://www.accessc.com for more information on copy writing, websites, and Internet marketing.

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