Content Corner: Dash It All and Hone Your Word Choice

Picture this: While drafting a work product on a looming deadline, you’re not 100% certain you’ve used a word or phrase or punctuation mark correctly. Sound familiar?

In the same vein as Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, many beleaguered copyeditors have wondered to themselves: “Am I the only one around here who gives a damn about the rules?!” If you ignore the rules of English, then you could be entering a world of pain — and that’s especially true for communications professionals.

These two style elements cause plenty of consternation, but a little clarity goes a long way.

Dashes: Use the Right Tool for the Right Job

Dashes can provide emphasis — or interrupt the main thought — but a comma, semicolon, colon, period or parentheses may work better. An em dash is more emphatic than a comma; don’t overuse it. Keep your reader in mind to make the text clear, consistent and easy to read.

But don’t just dash off your dash. Make sure you’re using the right one — and you probably want the em dash.

  • An em dash (as wide as an M in typography) is generally the one you should use.
  • An en dash (as wide as an N) is typically used for ranges of dates or numbers — although AP style uses a hyphen instead. Don’t use the en dash when you need an em dash, and don’t mix them.
  • A hyphen joins compound adjectives and some words with a prefix or suffix.
  • – – A double hyphen doesn’t belong in professional writing (unless you’re using a typewriter like Tom Hanks).

To space or not to space? That is the question. AP style uses a space around dashes — like this — for typographic reasons, but most word processing programs and other style guides don’t. Above all, be consistent!

Word Choice: Close Only Counts in Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

Some words are so similar that they confuse us even though they’re completely different. Don’t get it twisted. Here are two examples of confusing words:

  • Home (in) vs. Hone: “Home” can be a verb! “Home in on the target” means to get closer to it. Hone means to sharpen, as in a skill or a blade, so you probably want to say “home in.”
  • Comprised vs. composed (of): Pick one, but don’t write “comprised of.” Comprise means composed of.

By Sean Hojnacki

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