Simply dashing part two: the en dash

In part two of this series, we have reached the middle of our longest to shortest dash/hyphen set. The en dash: not quite an em dash, not quite a hyphen, and not quite as useful as either. I’m really selling this blog post, aren’t I?

But it’s actually important to learn the proper use of the en dash because an untrained eye might think an em dash or a hyphen is being used, when it’s actually an en dash. (The en dash is not as long as the em dash and not as short as a hyphen, but the lengths are just close enough that it can be easy to confuse.) And if you don’t use an en dash in its appropriate circumstances, not only will you make a punctuation error, but the entire realm of horizontal punctuation might implode and start eating itself. So, it’s important, okay?

En dash basics
Like the em dash, the en dash received its name from typesetting. This dash is the same length as the letter n, so it is thus called an en dash.

The en dash is used:

  • with number ranges
  • to signify to
  • with compound adjectives

Number ranges
The en dash can be used to replace the phrase up to and including, through, and to in number ranges.

Take a look at these examples:

David Bowie’s golden years were 1972–1979.
I have to read chapters 6–8 for homework.
The gallery will be open 2–11 p.m. Friday.
The Sharks beat the Jets, 14–5.

However, if the sentence has the word from before the first number in the number range, do not use an en dash. Instead, use the word to between the numbers:

From 1987 to 1989, Mark had a mullet haircut.
I will be unavailable from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Likewise, if the word between comes before the first number in the number range, do not use an en dash. Instead, use the word and.

Between October 1 and December 1, I will be on vacation.
You can catch me at my office between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The en dash is also used with unfinished date ranges. Examples of this are birthdates for people who are still alive and the start date for an ongoing publication or program:

David Bowie (1947–) is a famous British rocker.
Rolling Stone (1967–) has covered David Bowie many times through the years.

En dash to signify to
Outside of number ranges, the en dash can also be used to replace the word to:

The Berlin–Munich train leaves at 3 p.m.
Their marriage lasted May–August 2011.

En dashes with compound adjectives
Says The Chicago Manual of Style section 6.80, “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 or when both elements consist of hyphenated compounds.”

Open compounds are compounds of two or more words with spaces in them that express one idea (such as salad dressing and science fiction).

Here are examples of open compounds in a compound adjective that use an en dash:

the country music–influenced band
the pre–World War Three generation

Here are examples of an en dash used when both elements of a compound adjective are hyphenated:

the semi-elegant–semi-successful party
the non-business–non-pleasure category

How to make an en dash
Like with the em dash, Microsoft Word automatically makes an en dash in some situations. For instance, if you are typing a number range and type a space-hyphen-space between the two numbers, Word automatically changes the hyphen to an en dash. However, The Chicago Manual of Style advises not to place spaces around en dashes.

You can always add an en dash by using these steps:

  1. In Microsoft Word, go to the Insert tab.
  2. Click Symbol from the drop down box.
  3. Click Special Characters.
  4. Click En Dash.
  5. Click Insert.

Spaces around en dash?
As I mentioned above, The Chicago Manual of Style advises not to places spaces around en dashes. However, be sure to check for spacing specifics in any house style guide or other style guide that applies to what you are writing.

If you missed part one of the series, you can find it here. And be sure to check back for the final installment to learn how and when to use hyphens.

One Little Endian, Two Little Endians: Formatting Dates Across the Globe

The proper way to format dates in America is to write month, day, comma, year. Like this:

May 27, 1950

However, as you are no doubt aware, this is the proper way to format a date in America. Different countries have different formats. And this is where we need to devote a tangent to Mr. Jonathan Swift, one of history’s most beloved satirists, the reason for which will be clear soon. (Feel free to skip this part if you want to get straight to the date discussion.)

A Swift Aside
The date format we use in America is called middle endian, but there is also the big endian and little endian formats. These terms derive from Jonathan Swift’s famous book, Gulliver’s Travels. One of the stories involves a political faction called Big Endians, people who liked to crack their eggs at the large end. The Lilliputian king considered this method too primitive and required his subjects, the Little Endians, to break their eggs at the small end. But the Big Endians rebelled.

Here is a quote from the book about these two groups:

“It is allowed on all Hands, that the primitive way of breaking Eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger End: But his present Majesty’s Grandfather, while he was a Boy, going to eat an Egg, and breaking it according to the ancient Practice, happened to cut one of his Fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his Father published an Edict, commanding all his Subjects, upon great Penalties, to break the smaller End of their Eggs. The People so highly resented this Law, that our Histories tell us there have been six Rebellions raised on that account; wherein one Emperor lost his Life, and another his Crown. . . . It is computed, that eleven thousand Persons have, at several times, suffered Death, rather than submit to break their Eggs at the smaller End. Many hundred large Volumes have been published upon this Controversy: But the books of the Big Endians have been long forbidden. . . .”

And, somehow, someway, this is how we got the names for date formats; the system, itself, being called Endianness. Endianness is a system by which units are ordered based on size. In terms of calendar dates, the units are day, month, and year, with day being the smallest unit and year being the largest unit.

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Little endian format
Most countries, including the vast majority of Europe, format their dates using the little endian method. This is why if you were to, say, pick up a British newspaper, you would see the date written with the day first, then the month, and then the year. As for commas, this format omits them.

Example: Hazel was born 27 May 1950.

However, I did find references that said a comma should be placed between the month and year if you are using an ordinal number (first, second, 1st, 2nd). In this case, an example would be:

Hazel was born 27th May, 1950.

Middle endian format
As we discussed earlier, America uses the middle endian format, joined by only a few other countries. In this format, the month goes first, then the day, then a comma, and then the year. Since the month is the middle-sized unit in the date, this format is called middle endian.

Example: Hazel was born May 27, 1950.

Big endian format
The international formal standard for formatting dates follows the big endian format, with the year coming first, then the month (since it is one step smaller than the year), and then the date.

Example: Hazel was born 1950 May 27th.

In the big endian format, there are no commas.

What about commas after the year?
Recently I had a comma debate with a work colleague. (If you’re not a copy editor, grammarian, or punctuation purist, this is exactly the type of conversation during which it would be easy to fall asleep. But to us, it was heated; it was enthralling; and it had just a hint of danger.) The question involved whether with a date in a sentence to include a comma after the year (when using the middle endian format).

To me, the answer was obvious: Yes, of course you put a comma there. And I prepared my list of references to back me up. To her, the answer was unclear. She also had a list of references that said it can go either way. (Grammar Girl, for one, is unfortunately on her side.) Well, I consider her references to be rogues, Grammar Girl or not.

So, it depends on what references you choose to follow. In the majority of my work, I adhere to The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook, and they say a sentence with a full date should look like this:

Hazel’s birthday of May 27, 1950, was a beautiful day.

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Fortnight and Four Score

Most units of time are easy enough to grasp. Day, week, hour. Yeah, got it. We learned that in first grade. But when it comes to more obscure terms, it’s easy to get confused. That’s why today we’re learning about fortnight and four score.

Fortnight = fourteen days (a.k.a. two weeks)
I think most Americans have heard of this term, though I suspect most of us are unaware of how long a fortnight actually is. Fortnight, which is derived from the Old English word fēowertyne niht, means “fourteen nights.” The term is much more common in Great Britain, which spread the term to New Zealand and Australia, among other countries.

Just for the heck of it, here’s a quote from one of my favorite linguists, Samuel Johnson, where he drops the fortnight bomb:

“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

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Four Score = eighty
I think the main reason most of us these days have even heard of this antiquated term is because of Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Gettysburg Address,” which begins:

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Here, the four score and seven years means eighty-seven years, and it refers to the amount of time that had passed at the time of the speech since our country was founded in 1776.

Using the terms
If you live in America and you ask, “Mind if I crash at your place for a fortnight?” you’re probably going to get some weird looks. Likewise, I doubt you will find a “Happy Four Score Birthday, Grandpa!” card at the drug store. So, I wouldn’t be too concerned about finding a way to incorporate these two terms into your regular vocabulary, but it does come in handy, every once in a while, to know what they mean.

Erin Servais is the founder of Dot and Dash, LLC, an author-services company focusing on women writers and offering a range of editing, coaching, and social media packages.

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