Hyphen and en dash and em dash oh my!
The smallest things can make a big difference.
When I started a new postdoc at Sydney University in 2010, I gave my first paper to my supervisor asking for input about the science. I hadn’t polished the paper at all, I just wanted some direction, really.
When I met with my supervisor to hear his wise comments the first thing he said to me was,
‘Your hyphens are all wrong.’
Hyphens! Nothing about the scientific direction or the experimental work. Just the little hyphens. I was annoyed and angry for sure, but the thing is, once you are trained in seeing the correct hyphens, n-dashes, and m-dashes, the sight of the wrong ones drives you crazy. You can’t really read the content for the mistakes.
So what is the difference between a hyphen, an en dash, and an em dash?
Briefly, a hyphen joins words together. For example, long-term or Quantitative Structure-Retention Relationship. A hyphen is the shortest form of dash.
An en dash is slightly longer (the Mac shortcut is to hit option and hyphen together) and is used when expressing a span of number or time, such as pages 2–3 or 2015–2018.
The longest dash is the em dash. This dash is used in places where parentheses are almost right but something less formal is needed. The em dash — the Mac shortcut is option, shift, and hyphen — is used to separate parts of the sentence.
Good luck with your hyphens and dashes! I'm ready to look at your paper to make sure that small mistakes never get in the way of the science. Just submit your paper and I'll fix your English.