Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you

Well, I’ll be dashed. A blog about en dashes, en rules and POTUS.

4 Comments

(4-minute read, unless you happen to be Oscar Wilde, in which case, 10-second read.)


Events in U.S. politics seem to move so quickly now that the occurrence I’m going to mention already seems like ancient history.

But you may recall that on 9 April the FBI raided the offices and hotel room of President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to investigate the alleged links between Russia and el Trumpo’s campaign. Those were extremely Stormy days.

Outraged, the world’s most powerful comb-over tweeted that ‘Attorney–client privilege is dead.’

While some people were concerned with the constitutional-legal issues thereby raised [note the hyphen], we (editors) who ignore such trivia and concentrate on higher things were thrust into the eye of a Twitterstorm over POTUS’s use of what looked like an en rule or en dash.

Beg pardon?

That’s right. An en dash (or en rule as it is more often called in Britain) is distinct from your common or garden hyphen; it is longer than it, as you will be able to see in the examples below.

Where you are most likely to have seen en dashes bigly, probably without even noticing, is in ‘ranges’ of different kinds:

in the period 1939–45; We are open Monday–Saturday; Opening times 9.30–5.30

If you read bibliographies, you will also probably have seen en rules in page ranges, e.g. pp. 120–27.

In some publishing styles it is used for ‘parenthetical asides’, which is editor-speak for what normal humans might call ‘subsidiary comments set off from the surrounding text’.

Serendipitously, today I chanced upon this elegant sentence containing en dashes used exactly that way: ‘He belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often short, fat, bald, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women’. (Ian McEwan, Solar, p.3)

If you want a definition, New Hart’s Rules defines an en rule somewhat circularly as follows: ‘The en rule (–) is longer than the hyphen and half the length of an em rule.’

Help! 

The names are not just plucked out of thin air; they have a(n) historical printing basis. An en rule is so called because it would once have been the width of a letter n in traditional lead-type typography. Similarly, an em rule would be the width of a letter… (you fill it in, gentle reader, just to prove you have been paying attention).

But please examine the chart below, going from left to right. For several common typefaces it shows first a hyphen, then a letter n, then an en rule, then an m, and then an m rule; it is glaringly obvious that the link between character width and length of rule has been broken.


Woteva. The fact is that if you want to produce an en or em rule in Word, you can get them effortlessly using the Alt-key. And there are other ways too.

(See at end for instructions.)

Yes, but what about attorney–client privilege?

The question mark hanging unmenacingly over the Twittersphere was whether that presidential en dash should have been a non-presidential hyphen.

Moreover, few could credit that the coiner of the deathless vocable covfefe and the global no. 1 abuser of majuscule (capital letters) could be so subtle as to use an en dash. Not to mention, that it can be hard to judge from Twitter what length a hyphen or dash is in any case.

IMHO, it was correctly an en rule.

New Hart’s Rules, for example saith:

‘The en rule is used closed up to express connection or relation between words; it means roughly to or and:

Dover–Calais crossing; Ali–Foreman match; editor–author relationship; Permian–Carboniferous boundary.’

The pertinent example for us is editor–author relationship. That en rule/dash linking the words perfectly encapsulates the connection between client and attorney as expressed by the Big Ginger.

In an endless thread reflecting on preposPOTUS’s original tweet, one wit opined that:

The en-dash can be used to establish range, such as in a range of pages in a book. Thus, Mr. Trump is making a metaphysical/moral claim here: The ties that bond “attorneys” to “clients” is a spectrum of intimacy, not a simplistic hyphenated ontological proximity.

Another quoted: ‘”The en dash connects things that are related to each other by distance,” Attorney and *distant* client?’

In support of the ‘relationship’ hypothesis, I submit Hart’s example of ‘a Greek-American family’ versus ‘Greek–American negotiations’. The first means a family of mixed heritage, the second negotiations between…

Can you use the en dash for anything else?
The Chicago Manual of Style, at least in its current edition, does not mention the ‘relationship’ angle that New Hart’s Rules does.

It does, however, suggest some extreme subtleties which I feel sure must be ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’.  It prefaces those with the slightly starchy: ‘Though the differences can sometimes be subtle—especially in the case of an en dash versus a hyphen—correct use of the different types [sc. of hyphen] is a sign of editorial precision and care.’

  • To indicate an unfinished range, e.g. Theresa May, British Prime Minister 2016–; Brexit negotiations 2017–
  • ‘The en dash can be used in place of a hyphen in a compound adjective when one of its elements consists of an open compound…’ e.g. the post–World War II yearsChuck Berry–style lyrics.

(I’m not sure how Chuck Berry might feel about being an ‘open compound’.) But, as the Manual realistically acknowledges, ‘this editorial nicety will almost certainly go unnoticed by the majority of readers.’

As Hart’s points out, the en rule is also used for botanical, anatomical, etc. phenomena named after two people, e.g. Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (‘mad cow disease’), and for other non-scientific pairings, e.g. Marxism–Leninism.

Incidentally, AP and Chicago differ in styles, as shown in this chart.

OK, I am raring to use an en dash asap. How do I create one?

There is an exhaustive list here.

To keep things simple, and you on this page, here are three options.

a) Much the simplest, probably, is to use the Alt-key and the numeric keypad, if you have one:

Alt 45 –
Alt 0150 –
Alt 0151 —

But we all have different ways of working, so…

b) In Word, under ‘File’ go to ‘Options’ then ‘Proofing’. Under ‘Autocorrect options’ click on ‘Autoformat’ and make sure you tick the box under ‘Replace’ to replace two hyphens with a dash.

But beware. If you insert two hyphens between words and leave no space, Word will convert them into an em dash

But if you want a word to be followed by an en dash, type the word, then a space, then two hyphens, and – you should get an en dash.

This is the system I have always used, but it is, admittedly, cumbersome.

c) Unicode

hyphen = U2010
en dash = U2013
em dash = U2014

That’s it for now. Sorry, must dash.

 

 

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

4 thoughts on “Well, I’ll be dashed. A blog about en dashes, en rules and POTUS.

  1. Oh, I am so happy to have signed up to this blog. To see someone who really appreciates the difference between an n-dash and a hyphen. Joy!!’

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh dear oh dear, Jeremy! You used ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’ wrongly! Peter

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

  3. That depends, Peter. If you mean in the sense ‘a custom that is more often ignored than observed’, that is how I used it, and it is how most people use it. I know, however, that that is not what Shakespeare meant, hence the quotation marks. But they are apparently not enough to signal my ‘ironic distancing’ from the quotation, ;-).

    Like

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