Among a copy editor’s typographic tools is the useful trick known variously as the suspended hyphen, suspensive hyphen, dangling hyphen, hanging hyphen, and floating hyphen. It’s the first hyphen in phrases like sales- and service-related queries and sisters- and brothers-in-law. It helps ensure they’re not misread.
The suspended hyphen is not always deployed, and it’s seldom seen in casual writing, but it’s a moderately common device in edited prose. But I’ll wager you’ve rarely or never seen its extended cousin: the suspended en dash. Behold!
This is from Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist: And Other Essays (Faber and Faber, 2005). Here’s the text of interest:
… requiring Talking Heads– or Elvis Costello–style ironies …
We’ll leave Talking Heads aside for now. They can chat among themselves. The en dash in Elvis Costello–style ironies is an editorial nicety often skipped. My guess is that most readers wouldn’t notice if it was a hyphen or a space instead, and some will be nonplussed by the dash if they notice it at all. So I’ll explain.
Hyphens are used routinely in phrasal adjectives (or ‘compound modifiers’) to tie the phrases together and increase clarity, thus two-day interval, wide-angle lens, little-ass car. Multiple hyphenation, though journalists are often suspicious of it, is a useful tool that enables distinctions: anti-social justice website ≠ anti-social-justice website. There are complications, but they’re non-life-threatening.
The en-dash option arises because Elvis Costello is a compound. Elvis Costello is a singer, and a singular one, but in italics he’s functionally equivalent to any other singer (though not Elvis, with his one name) or multi-word phrase. The en dash joining his name with style is like an extra-strong hyphen, indicating that it’s not just Costello but the whole compound Elvis Costello that’s being connected with style.
That’s obvious enough, because we recognise the name – or at any rate we recognise that it’s a name and therefore a cohesive unit. But some compounds are less identifiably a unit, so using an en dash reduces the chances of ambiguity. It’s more a feature of US English. The New Oxford Style Manual, which calls en dashes en rules, says the following:
There is no satisfactory way of dealing with the type ex-Prime Minister, in which the second element is itself a compound. A second hyphen, e.g. ex-Prime-Minister, is not recommended, and rewording is the best option. The use of former instead of ex- avoids such problems, and is more elegant. Note that in US style an en rule is used to connect a prefix and a compound (the post–World War I period).
Not every phrase can be reworded so neatly as ex- → former, mind. Across the Atlantic, the Chicago Manual of Style elaborates:
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.
By the latter, CMOS means strings like quasi-public–quasi-judicial, which is clearer than quasi-public-quasi-judicial – but more awkward, CMOS says, than using a comma in the middle. It advises that the en dash in compound adjectives ‘should be used sparingly, and only when a more elegant solution is unavailable’. Among its examples are:
the post–World War II years
Chuck Berry–style lyrics
country music–influenced lyrics
It notes that the relationship in the third example, though clear enough, depends to a degree ‘on an en dash that many readers will perceive as a hyphen’. But those who are familiar with the technique – including you, now, if you weren’t before – may be a little more satisfied to see that this editorial box has been quietly ticked.
Combine this en dash with another compound (enter Talking Heads), and with it the need to suspend the mark like the hyphen in sales- and service-related queries, and you have the opportunity to use, or witness, the suspended en dash, a rare item indeed.
Searching Google for the term returns just a few hits. Two, on Reddit and FontShop, refer to an ordinary running dash. Only StackExchange’s English Language and Usage page,1 citing 14– and 15–year-olds, names what I’m talking about.2 No hits for ‘suspensive …’ or ‘floating en dash’. ‘Dangling …’ and ‘hanging en dash’ return a different type, in wiki chats on styling open-ended year ranges, like 2003–.
Welcome to an esoteric society.
This all started with Jonathan Lethem, or perhaps his copy editor. For more on Lethem’s writing, and less punctuation geekery, see my post on Tourette’s syndrome in Motherless Brooklyn: ‘A sea of language at full boil’.
1 Remember the limerick competition I had here?
2 The writer there referring to the ‘suspended en dash’, Jon Hanna, is a fellow Irishman. Make of that what you will.