June 23, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: dashes and hyphens & more email etiquette

Posted in dashes, email etiquette, email thank yous, hyphen, hyphen/compound words at 6:13 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Dashes and hyphens

A reader writes:

Sometimes I see “socio-demographic” and other times I see “sociodemographic.” I’m unsure of the pluses and minuses of including the dash.

Can you help? I apologize if you’ve already covered this topic.

First of all, my feeling is that you can never say too much about the hyphen. This sadly neglected piece of punctuation is too often ignored and often omitted completely, so I am happy to answer this. It also gives me the opportunity to tell you about the difference between dashes and hyphens. First, I will share my answer to the reader’s question about whether to use ‘socio-demographic’ or ‘sociodemographic,’  and then we’ll get into the story of hyphens and all.

The  quick answer is that both are correct, and it is largely a matter of style. There is a tendency, these days, to forgo the hyphen and use one word as in ‘sociodemographic’ so I would make that my default. The hyphen, here, is really only necessary to ensure clarity (re-press v. repress).

If you are writing a manuscript, I’d check to see if the journal to which you are submitting has a particular house style, but really either one is correct. Just be sure to use it consistently throughout your manuscript.

The reader wrote:

I’m unsure of the pluses and minuses of using the dash.

What he really meant to write was this:

I’m unsure of the pluses and minuses of using the hyphen.

So what is the difference between the hyphen and the dash? And what is the character on your keyboard next to the equal sign key—a hyphen or a dash?

This is going to sound somewhat complicated, but it really is not. These are the things to remember:

1) Most of the time, when we write, we want to use the hyphen, and the character on your keyboard is a hyphen, so that is handy.

The hyphen is used to separate compound words to ensure clarity (e.g., re-create versus recreate), to express compound numbers or fractions, to separate some prefixes from the many word. We’ve discussed many of these uses in the past. https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/hyphen/

2) There isn’t a dash per se, there is an em dash and an en dash, and we hardly ever use the en dash so I won’t spend much time on it. We do use the em dash quite frequently.

The em dash is called an em dash because it is as wide as a capital M (about twice the width of a hyphen). It is often represented by two hyphens. Some word processing programs allow you to insert an actual em dash.

[NOTE: In Microsoft Word, you can do this by going to the INSERT menu, selecting SYMBOL , then ADVANCED SYMBOL and then, SPECIAL CHARACTER and then, EM DASH.]

The em dash is used to indicate a parenthetical thought or an interruption in thought:

I was going through all of my email this morning—oh darn, I forgot my wallet—when I found this missive from you.

All of the findings from this study—especially those regarding rates of growth—must be considered preliminary.

The difference between using commas or parentheses and em dashes is that commas and parentheses minimize the parenthetical thought while em dashes provide emphasis and mark the importance of the thought.

The em dash also can be used in lieu of a semicolon:

I checked to see if I had packed all of the necessities—the suntan lotion, the iPad, and the kindle.

Keep in mind that the em dash tends to be used in informal writing, so I would use it sparingly in our more formal writing.

Finally, the en dash. As I said, we hardly ever use it. As you might guess, it is the width of the capital N, wider than a hyphen but not as wide as the em dash:

Hyphen           –

Em dash          —

En dash           –

 The en dash is generally used to connote a range:

The library is open from September–July.

It is often represented by a hyphen with a space on either side:

This is a very complete index and includes entries from A – Z.

[NOTE: In fact, in Microsoft Word, if you type space hyphen space, Word automatically replaces that with an en dash.]

So that’s really all you need to know about hyphens and dashes. Just remember that the character on your keyboard is  a hyphen.

Tip 2: More on email etiquette

Writing about how we use email seems to have really touched a nerve for a lot of people.

A reader writes:

I love the email etiquette suggestions!  I do, really and thank you. I am not clever enough to create any, but would love to learn more if they help communicate better and more efficiently.

A reader writes:

I like this wlut; especially the tips on controlling email blog. Anything to get more time back and tame the email beast.

A reader writes:

I like the ideas conveyed by nntr and nrn, but they are so non-standard that I think they might generate more email asking what the acronym stood for. I may start conveying those sentiments, but most likely by writing them out for now!

A reader writes:

As you know, I hate thank you emails.  I simply get too many and get irritated that I have to take the time to open, read, and delete yet another email that simply says, “thanks” or “okay.”  Sending an email that just says thanks is a waste of everyone’s time.  Yes, I feel that strongly.  I love NRN and am adopting it immediately!


A reader writes:

I think it would be difficult to get everyone to adopt these practices (using acronyms) as a general email rule, but it’s worth spreading around. I have seen the EOM more often lately. Started using it myself.

And a reader sends a tip:

on your email tip:

I always keep the SIZE column visible right next to the email header being displayed.

I’ve learned that when the size is less than 10 KB, 99% of the time there is no message.

but, since that 1% may be important to my work, instead of relying on size, I just keep the preview message pane right below the headers pane, which allows me to just rapidly delete messageless messages without going to the message (which doesn’t exist)…

anyway, I get through dozens of emails this way in a few minutes.

Only one reader expressed opposition to the use of EOM and NRN on the premise that there are too many acronyms in the world already. While sympathetic to her beliefs, I am going to start using NRN and EOM more often, but like a reader suggested above, I think, at first, I will write them out so as not to cause confusion and convert to just the acronym overtime.

No Response Necessary (NRN)

End of Message (EOM)

I thought of another acronym that I think is needed more and more due to the ubiquity of smart phones, iPads, and other mobile devices. This is the situation: Since we now can, we often check our email during meetings and lectures and the sort, but we don’t respond right way (because we are in the middle of meetings and lectures and the sort), and the email is ultimately neglected. I often find myself awaiting a response that never comes. I thought it might be effective to add an acronym to the subject line, RN, to represent ‘response needed,’ indicating that this email needs to be answered. Like the other acronyms, I would initiate this by spelling it out along with the acronym:

Response Needed (RN)

As I look at this now, I think that it may be problematic, since RN also stands for Registered Nurse, and it also very close to the NRN acronym we are adopting. Maybe, Response Required (RR) would be better. Any preferences, other thoughts, out there?

Finally, a reader writes:

Here is another pet peeve:  those who hit the respond all button.

Everybody hates it when a writer hits ‘reply to all.’ The common outcome is that a lot of email is sent to a lot of people who don’t need to be involved. I believe that the only time you should hit ‘reply to all’ is if you are having a group discussion and you really mean to have everyone take part in the discussion.

Until this week, there was one other instance when I hit ‘reply to all.’ Sometimes, someone asks me to take care of something and carbon copies my boss, my division chief. In those cases, I always ‘replied to all,’ to respond to the original writer and to let my boss know that I am on the case. I did this even though I knew, deep in my heart, that my boss gets way too much email, and he doesn’t need me to remind him that I am taking care of the issue.

As a result of these discussions, I did something radical this week, and I urge you to do the same. I asked him if he wanted to be cc’d on those emails. His response was that everyone gets annoyed when they get meaningless ‘reply to all’ messages, and he doesn’t need to see them to know that I am taking care of things.

Hallelujah! I don’t know why I never asked before, but we both, now, will be spared those irritating ‘reply to all’ emails.

If you are ‘replying to all’ because you think someone needs you to, ASK. You may end up saving both of you needless aggravation.



  1. Anonymous said,

    Thanks — appreciate this blog.

    You wrote:
    The em dash also can be used in lieu of a hyphen:

    I checked to see if I had packed all of the necessities—the suntan lotion, the iPad, and the kindle.
    Shouldn’t this be “in lieu of a semicolon”?

    • dlseltzer said,

      Yes. You are exactly right. Thanks.

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