Have You Seen My Towel?

The hyphen is an unassuming little bugger, isn’t he?

He’s happy to break a word between lines, but he doesn’t expect you to take much notice of him. He seems content to say, “The rest of the word is down there, on the next line.” The hyphen practically waves his hands in the air, bashful as always: “Really, just pretend I’m not here.”

Hyphens are also known to disappear over time. Words such as “teen-ager,” which once used hyphens, eventually abandon them: “teenager.” It’s as if the hyphen eventually begins to feel extremely uncomfortably and simply says, “Well, I’m not needed here any longer. Don’t worry, I’ll show myself out.”

Hyphens will even stand in for their bigger brother the en dash (–) when a typeface won’t accommodate the lesser-known mark. An en dash is the length of a capital N and is used for number ranges (1940–1960) and to hold together certain compound expressions that require a mark stronger than the hyphen to hold the expressions together (a Nobel Prize–winning scientist, for instance). Because the vast majority of the population can’t pick the en dash out of a lineup, the hyphen all too often gets away with this impersonation.

A mark more people are familiar with is the em dash (—), which is the length of a capital M and is often just called the dash. The em dash can be used in a sentence in place of parentheses, to indicate an interruption in dialogue, or, as more and more seems to be the case today, to set off dramatic statements—or supposedly dramatic statements.

Unlike the unassuming hyphen, the em dash is all bravado. Increasingly, writers are using em dashes with a frequency they can’t seem to control. These em dashes are like spontaneous erections. The writer might be a bit embarrassed by them, but that doesn’t stop them from popping up all over the place—quite frankly, it’s enough to give anyone a headache!

It’s not that the em dash doesn’t have its uses, but with its almost ubiquitous presence in today’s writing—especially on the Web—a little propriety might be in order.

One might also think just how all this celebration of the em dash makes the humble hyphen feel. You can hardly blame him for wanting to avoid public showers.

Note: Although en dashes and em dashes are commonly understood to correspond to the lengths of upper-case N’s and M’s, respectively, their actual lengths vary by font.

Reading Update: Last night I began reading The Double by the extraordinary writer José Saramago. I have always been fascinated by doppelgangers, so you can imagine my excitement.

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