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My name is Bob Land. I am a full-time freelance editor and proofreader, and occasional indexer. This blog is my website.

You'll find my rate sheet and client list here, as well as musings on the life of a freelancer; editing, proofreading, and indexing concerns and issues; my ongoing battles with books and production; and the occasional personal revelation.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

En as in Nancy

Ah, the en dash. What you are looking at below, if the bloggergods are cooperative, are, in descending order, a hyphen, an en dash, and an em dash.


Hyphens are universally known, though occasionally troublesome when trying to remember whether or not they appear in common compound words, as I've covered in an earlier post. Aside from the words listed in that post, the ones that would often show up on my style sheets—that is, if I ever created style sheets—are fund-raiser, decision making (as a noun), and health care/health-care (noun and adjective, respectively; not healthcare . . . all per Merriam-Webster's 11th). For all I know, when MW12 comes out, all those might be different.

Em dashes are the longest dashes, often used in my editing almost as parentheses, but without the connotation that parentheses give as text that might be superfluous. They are also used for breaks in thought, to give a longer mental pause than a comma, and in bibliographies to indicate that the author of the reference you're citing is the same as the one previous—hence the wonderful 3-em dash. To me, the most common misuse of the em dash is in place of a semicolon. Do not separate what could be complete sentences with an em dash. Don't do it. Don't. I'll change it. I promise.

And then there's the glory of the en dash. En as in Nancy.

(Aside: The name "Nancy" will forever make me think of two things. [1] The apartment we lived in on Staten Island for seven years. We lived in apartment 10-N, and when ordering pizza from Pal Joey's or Joe and Pat's we'd have to specify the letter so they wouldn't deliver it, say, to 10-M. Thus "10-n-as-in-Nancy" rolled off the tongue probably hundreds of times in that and other contexts over those seven years. [2] Before we lived in the apartment [shown here, thanks to the wonders of the Google], we lived next door to a family that had a daughter named Nancy who was about a year or 18 months younger than I was [at this time, I'm about 6 to 9 years old]. We were good friends as children. I remember playing make-believe Batman-and-Robin with her, running around our houses. After I moved to the apartment, all of about three or four miles away, we didn't see each other again until about six years later [except at my Bar Mitzvah, and we barely spoke], when my mother and I went to dinner at the former neighbors' house. I was at the height of my social awkwardness, and trust me, going to an all-boys' school I was about as awkward as it gets. I was, when I wasn't at summer camp, just about emotionally incapable of speaking with any girl my age. Well, that might be hedging a little. Totally incapable is more like it. I think Nancy picked up on this and retired to her room for most of the evening. Very painful for both of us, I am sure, as we were close in our childhood. In my childlike mind years before, I'd grown up thinking I'd eventually marry her. Well, the next time we saw each other was about four or five years later at her brother's wedding. I guess we were both in college. We spent the time dancing in each other's arms and walking around the facility and talking and laughing and looking at each other like, wasn't this the way it was always supposed to be? She probably remembered the night, as I did, when Mom and I came to dinner. I have not seen Nancy from that day to this. Actually, my family and I went to see these neighbors some years back on a visit to Staten Island, and they made reference to a picture of Nancy and her husband and kids being on the piano or something. I didn't look. No regrets, mind you. I'd just as soon not deal with adolescent postmortems . . . well, except in this ridiculously public forum.)

So, the en dash. It is generally unknown outside of book/scholarly publishing, because it is not a topic in the AP style manual, doesn't appear in newspapers or magazines, and of course, most people would pass it right by if they saw one.

It's not the purpose of this post to give a class on the en dash (I've already blown that with the Nancy anecdote), but rather to complain about its frequent misuse in a lot of books I've seen recently.

One of the functions of the en dash is to join two words and one word when used as an adjective. The example that Chicago gives is a New York–London flight. Another good example would be a Pulitzer Prize–winning author. This makes more sense than a New-York-London flight or a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author.

But what I have seen a great deal lately is the use of the en dash to join two proper names when used as an adjective; an example would be the Ali–Frazier fight or the Obama–Biden ticket.

Did I miss something along the way? Has Bill Gates pulled another fast one on us and made the en dash in that context one of his auto-correct features? Or, as I say, have I totally missed the boat?

We have a few wordsmiths and editors out there. Let me know if I'm off base. If I am, I'll admit my error. But I'll probably keep up the post about en-as-in-Nancy. And that great photo of some of New York's Finest at my old apartment building. And, if I'm not mistaken, apartment 10-N is actually in the photo. If you consider the first floor you see as 3 (because the second floor was the mezzanine), count upward to 10, and trace your cursor over to the right, I believe that would have been my mother's bedroom window.


moi said...

I think I'll forever be confused about this dash stuff. So, is it casino-resort, then? I always write casino/resort. Which could be a whole 'nuther topic.

And damn, if all East Coast apartment buildings in the 70s didn't look the same. I could swear that's my aunt's old apartment in Riverdale.

Don said...

I hate trying to explain en dashes to students. (I sometimes teach copyediting classes.) I end up flailing around with examples like "pre–Vietnam War era." They start looking at the clock.

Re: your New York–Paris flight. Chicago regards this as an instance of the en dash as a substitute for the word "to," and gives the example of the London–Paris train (also with an en). The fact that it's an open compound is a coincidence.

Re: the Ali–Frazier fight: the Brits do this. Judith Butcher's _Copyediting_, which is very roughly the UK Chicago, cites an example similar, and says (paraphrasing from memory; my copy is long gone) that when you are creating a compound out of two words that are the same part of speech, you use an en dash instead of a hyphen. Thus "red–green colour blindness" and "oil–water interface."

Have a nice weekend.

czar said...

PS to Don:

I think my Chicago reference might be a holdover from the 14th edition. I know (I think I know) it used to be there, but I don't see it in the 15th. And I believe I gave my 14th edition to a fledgling editor just so they could see what they were getting themselves into. Or maybe someone needed an orange doorstop.

czar said...


Yes, a whole 'nother topic indeed. See Don's comment as well. I work with an editor with far more pedigree than I have who totally eschews slashes, not to mention "and/or." And he's not the first I've run into who says that "and/or" is worthless.

And that indeed is a topic for a future post. Every time I think I have a handle on why and/or should be verboten, it slips away from me again.

That building has a whole lot of memories--well, what's left of them--many, many good and bad associations. I could write a decent chapter or two of memories of my years in that building, none of which would be important or interesting to anyone but me and perhaps a psychoanalyst.

My brother reports that the owners of the building are now constantly being sued for discriminatory renting practices. But, hell, it's Staten Island--in some respects, the Mississippi or South Carolina (take your pick) of New York City.


Thank you, thank you, thank you. I've known there had to be a British equivalent of Chicago and have searched Amazon and the Google for same, coming up with some likely possibilities, none of which I've wanted to plop down the ducats for, especially since I didn't know what I'd be getting. It's good to have a recommendation.

And I'm also thankful for the British insight. Looking back, yes indeed, I believe that many of the books I've worked on where I've seen this use of the en dash come from British/European authors. Another mystery solved.

Again, keep coming back. You can keep me reined in when I get too ignant. (See, Moi? Shirley Q. Liquor is everywhere.)