As a writer, I am always trying to improve my writing. As a Virgo, I have been told that I am slightly anal retentive. Regarding the latter, I think people are just using the stars to insult me. – Wait! I’ll be right back. The pencils on my desk aren’t properly aligned. – In any case, the nexus of language skill improvement and mild obsessive compulsiveness is clearly punctuation.

I don’t consider myself a punctuation fascist, but I am interested in how relaxing standards and technological change interplay to alter written language. Eats, Shoots & Leaves is one of the most dog-eared volumes on my bookshelf and to underscore the importance of proper punctuation, I like to wear my “Save Grandma!” T-shirt to the first lecture fall semester with incoming students. Unfortunately, my favorite T is getting a bit worn and students may be wondering if I get paid enough. Dear students, please voice your concerns to the administration. Perhaps in their unending benevolence they will grant me a raise.

Recently I have been thinking about hyphens (-), en dashes (–), and em dashes (—). I don’t want to focus on the proper use of each punctuation mark in this blog. There are plenty of superb online resources covering usage, for example The Punctuation Guide or Merriam-Webster. The APA Publication Manual 7th Edition is also an excellent guide.

What I have been pondering is the fate of the en dash. The hyphen has a key on the keyboard, and Word automatically converts two hyphens into an em dash. However, producing an en dash is next to impossible unless you have a numeric keypad. This raised several questions for me:

  • Has this led to increased use of the hyphen as an ersatz for the en dash?
  • What (if any) are the effects of the en dash replacing the hyphen?
  • How did we create en dashes on typewriters (for those of us who used typewriters)? I believe we used a double hyphen for the em dash. I have no idea if or how we made an en dash. Was improper en dash use already an issue before the dawn of word processing?
  • If only typesetters can produce an en dashes, why did they ever evolve?

If you have answers to any or all my questions, please leave a comment.

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