Monday, May 08, 2006


I stopped learning grammar when I was in elementary school. Or maybe high school; I can’t remember which. In any event, I never really paid attention anyway, so everything I do know about grammar, I’ve learned by doing a lot of reading.

So there are a lot of things I do, grammatically speaking, which are incorrect. (You’ll probably notice some of them if you look through the comments on this blog. I have a lot of readers who enjoy pointing out grammatical mistakes—budding editors, no doubt. Or just jerks.)

This post points out a couple of things I’ve learned recently. They’re more concerned with punctuation, which I consider to be a subset of grammar.


There are three types of dash, which are used in different circumstances. (There are actually more than three types of dash, but for most people, it’s just these three that would matter. If you want to become a hard-core typesetter or something, you might want to look more into the different types of dashes.)

-dash (hypen/minus)

Dash (Hyphen)

The normal dash is what we’re all familiar with. You get it by simply pressing the appropriate key on the keyboard. According to Wikipedia, this is not, strictly speaking, a dash at all; it’s a hyphen. (In the Wikipedia article, they keep calling it a “hyphen-minus”, which I find confusing; I am calling it “hyphen/minus”, for this post, meaning it could be called a hyphen or a minus.)

The hyphen is used for, obviously, hyphenated words. For example, if I said that “President Bush is ultra-conservative”, I would use a hyphen in the phrase “ultra-conservative”. This character is also used as the minus character, for mathematical equations.


The n-dash is used to indicate a range. (It’s called an “n-dash” because it is supposed to be the width of a capital “N” for any particular font.) For example, if I have a meeting from one o’clock to two o’clock, I could say 1:00–2:00, where that dash in the middle is an n-dash. Or, for Biblical quotations, I might say Genesis 1–3, meaning Genesis chapters 1 through 3, or Genesis 1:1–3, meaning Genesis chapter 1, verses 1 through 3.

Since there is no n-dash key on an English keyboard, typing one is different from program to program; in Microsoft Word, you can get an n-dash by holding the Ctrl key, and pressing the hyphen/minus key on the numeric keypad. (The keypad off on its own, to the far right of the keyboard.)


The m-dash is used when you want to break the flow of text, for an aside. (It’s called an “m-dash” because it is supposed to be the width of a capital “M” for any particular font. It should also be twice the width of a hyphen/minus character.)

For example, “I sent an email to Jimmy—whoever he is—to fix my email account.” The dashes used in that sentence are m-dashes. Notice also that there should be no spaces on either side of the m-dash. (If you really, really wanted to include a space before and after, there is a special space character, which is more narrow than a regular space, which could be used, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It should never be necessary.)

An m-dash can also be used for an open-ended range; For example, if I were listing some people, and when they died, I might put:

Andy Kaufman (1949–1984); David Hunter (1974—)

In this case, Andy Kaufman lived from 1949 to 1984; a range of dates, so I used an n-dash. But David Hunter was born in 1974, and hasn’t died yet; an open-ended range, so I used an m-dash instead.

Since there is no m-dash key on an English keyboard, typing one is different from program to program; in Microsoft Word, you can get an m-dash by holding the Ctrl and Alt keys, and pressing the hyphen/minus key on the numeric keypad. Or, in many contexts where there is no such ability, like when using an old-fashioned typewriter, it is permissible to use two hyphens, in place of an m-dash. For example, “I sent an email to Jimmy--whoever he is--to fix my email account.” (I put that in a fixed-width font, to better show the dashes.) If you do this in Microsoft Word, it will correctly replace two hyphens with an m-dash.

m-dash vs. n-dash

There is a newer style of writing, in which people are starting to use a space, an n-dash, and a space, in places where an m-dash would traditionally have been used. For example, instead of writing “I emailed Jimmy—whoever he is—to fix my email account”, the newer style is to type “I emailed Jimmy – whoever he is – to fix my email account.” If you use Microsoft Word, and type in hyphens where those n-dashes are, Word will automatically convert them to n-dashes for you.

For this blog, and any other writing I do, I stick with the m-dash in this situation, but it’s becoming more and more common to use the “space n-dash space” convention instead, so it’s no longer “incorrect” to do so.

Italics, and Punctuation

Another thing I’ve been struggling with, recently, when there is a punctuation mark (comma, period, question mark, etc.) right after an italicized word, should one italicize the punctuation as well? For example:

You can’t be serious!
You can’t be serious!

As you can see, it’s a bit more readable if you do italicize the punctuation. After a bit of searching, I found this site, which indicates that no, you should not italicize the punctuation surrounding the text that you really do want italicized.

This is how I’d always been doing it. It sort of goes along with the Hacker Writing Style I use for quotation marks, when I’m writing. But recently, I started including the punctuation in the italicization, to make it look better, until I finally couldn’t live with myself, and had to look up the proper way of doing it. And now that I have, I’ll go back to the way I was doing it.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this article and making the subject so easy to understand! :)