The suspended en dash, an editorial curio

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!

Image showing a paragraph from Jonathan Lethem's book "The Disappointment Artist". Relevant text is reproduced just below.

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 websiteanti-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.


31 Responses to The suspended en dash, an editorial curio

  1. Virginia says:

    Ahhhh! Thank you for the StackExchange example (14– and 15–year-olds). I’ve just completed a book-editing project and had an opportunity to do this, but I was a bit nervous about it. Sometimes I feel like I’m peppering the text with en dashes or hyphens, and it’s nice to know that I’m not alone among folks who try to use them only when not doing so could create confusion (e.g., small business man).

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re welcome, Virginia! I’m glad it vindicated your editing choices. As editors we sometimes run the risk of making what John E. McIntyre calls ‘dog-whistle edits’ (though he omits that hyphen), but these are worthwhile additions, clarifying a text even for readers who might not consciously notice the fine details of punctuation.

    • bevrowe says:

      This is a very useful point. I find myself often tom between
      being pedantic and avoiding a clutter of hyphens and commas on a page.

  2. pibblegal says:

    I’ve never seen this before and am delighted!

  3. FreeMurrli says:

    Logical, I think, though the names make my head spin. A lot:)

    But honestly, what confuses me more are the comma rules in English. Which style guide would you recommend for commas? The reason I am asking that I am an editor for an Austrian scientific journal, editing texts in English and German. For German there is just one source which is, sort of, t h e source you go to for punctuation, orthography, and the like, namely Der Duden. But English? I just use the guidelines offered to me by OWL (online writing lab of Purdue University) and I try to be consistent.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’ll find good advice on comma use in either of the two style guides cited in the post: the New Oxford Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style. Both are hefty, comprehensive reference works, so if you want something more concise, I can recommend Merriam-Webster’s Guide to Punctuation and Style. G.V. Carey’s Mind the Stop is a fine, short, discursive work all about punctuation, but it may be tricky to source a copy.

      • FreeMurrli says:

        Thank you very much. Hefty guide is good guide. There are always cases when a concise guide is not enough.:) like the decision of uppercase or lowercase “r-value” at the beginning of a sentence. I wanted to change the sentence to avoid the r-value, but the author did not want it changed.

        And after reading your answer below on en dash and em dash, the names make sense. I seriously thought that the “en” bit in the name was French as in “en garde”. No idea why I thought this …

  4. I have used it, because without it the sentence is confusing. (Didn’t know the name is en dash.) But I always feel a little unsure as it surely isn’t common. Good to know I didn’t make it up!

    • Stan Carey says:

      The name comes from typesetting: traditionally an ‘en’ was a unit the width of an uppercase N; an em was the width of an M. The en dash (–) and em dash (—) were so named because of their respective lengths.

  5. astraya says:

    I would use a hyphen. I would only use an en dash if either or both of the components had (a) hyphen(s).

    • Stan Carey says:

      Then you’ll need more than one sometimes. A golden egg-laying ostrich ≠ a golden egg–laying ostrich (though a comma in the former would also help).

      • astraya says:

        I wouldn’t even notice the difference the difference between a golden egg-laying ostrich and a golden egg–laying ostrich, especially not first thing in the morning. I had to copy that into a word processing document and enlarge to 288 points to see the difference. I would definitely use a comma.

        Most of my editing experience has been legal or academic. Golden egg laying ostriches haven’t cropped up.

        • Stan Carey says:

          I’ve yet to encounter them too but hoped I might conjure one. Granted, the difference is negligible on this platform; on others it would be slightly more noticeable.

          • Alexander Collins says:

            Hello Stan Carey! I’m seeking advice and you seem like a man who’d be able to assist me. Before I state my concern, let it be known in no way am I an English major nor do I intend to write a book; I’m simply a college student troubled with words. So… As of I’ve come to notice words in which are unfamiliar to me. Before I use to read through a sentence even if I didn’t know the meaning of a word and somehow manage to understand the context of the sentence. Now, whenever I come across a word I don’t know I freeze and my mind goes blank. I’ve attempted looking up words, but the definition is just as confusing as the word I looked up. Is this normal? I know words in the english language have multiple meanings, but sometimes I get them mixed up, so sometime I’m not understanding the message clearly. If you don’t respond it’s okay, just thought I’d give it a shot. Thanks for your time, Alex C

          • Stan Carey says:

            Hi Alex. I don’t know how common that is. In my experience, looking up a word in a good modern dictionary (several are freely available online) does the job.

            If you have follow-up questions, please use email to avoid blog comments going off-topic.

  6. john smith says:

    I’m happy with Chuck-Berry-style lyrics (consistent with many other hyphenated compound attributive adjectives) or Chuck Berry style lyrics.
    I find Chuck Berry–style lyrics [with n-dash] quite perverse.
    I wonder how many people apart from editors even notice the difference between an n-dash and a hyphen.
    All this is only a problem if you insist that language and the writing system ought to be totally logical. It isn’t. With all due respect to golden-egg-laying ostrichs, I suspect cases of genuine ambiguity in the wild would be rare.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’m quite happy with the open-form Chuck Berry style lyrics in casual contexts. In more formal settings I wouldn’t object to it, but I would favour the en dash option. Calling it ‘perverse’ seems a bit strong, given that it’s sanctioned by expert authorities on academic English.

      As I wrote in the post, most readers would not notice if it was a hyphen or a space instead. It’s an editorial nicety, like the diaeresis in naïve, pleasing to those who are pleased by such things. No one’s insisting on a completely logical language or writing system: that would be highly unfeasible.

      • john smith says:

        My problem with Chuck Berry–style lyrics is that visually the dash/hyphen is a joiner, not a separator, and so suggests the wrong constituent structure: ((Chuck (Berry–style)) lyrics). Or maybe (Chuck ((Berry–style) lyrics))—either way, the point that’s wrong is the bracket separating Chuck from Berry.

        Authors of style manuals might tell us that the n–dash is a separator, but the psychological reality just doesn’t work that way. Especially when we’re used to viewing the almost identical hyphen as a joiner.

        • Stan Carey says:

          It’s not an ideal solution, which is why CMoS et al. recommend more elegant workarounds where available. But the “psychological reality” you invoke is subjective, not general. We agree that few people are even likely to notice which mark is used. You don’t like this use of the en dash, and that’s fine. I think it has its place, and my psychological reality is flexible enough to treat the en dash as a separator in most contexts but as a joiner when it’s used close up against a compound modifier.

          • nikki says:

            I think (Chuck ((Berry–style) lyrics)) is the more correct logical grouping, demonstrating how the en dash functions to clarify the text. Berry is the more limiting/significant part of Chuck-Berry in the broader- “lyrics by people named chuck and/or berry.’

            Separating how and when the terms are applied is precisely how one must process the information in the text for relevance and clarity.

          • Stan Carey says:

            Agreed, though I think the name is generally parsed as a unit. This morning I read the example World Bank–influenced engineers, which poses pretty much the same challenge. The writer, or editor, used an en dash, and again I felt it was the appropriate solution.

  7. Stan Carey says:

    Reactions to the usage have been very positive on Twitter, for what it’s worth. A sample:

  8. languagehat says:

    I have inserted many a suspended hyphen in my career, but if I got a chance to add a suspended en-dash I could retire happy. (As for this thread, it always depresses me to see the inevitable cluster of people stoutly maintaining that all this is silly nonsense and that the Plain People of Ireland understand stuff without any of your fancy furbelows and foofaraws; I always hope that karma confronts them with someone telling them the tricks of their own trade are pointless and should be done away with.)

    14– and 15–year-olds

    I don’t understand this at all. Why en dashes rather than hyphens?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Unfamiliarity can be powerfully off-putting, I suppose. The example you mention, from Stack Exchange, is a little confused, which I overlooked when quoting the site. An en dash could be used (and I see it used) in strings like 14–15-year-olds, but then that is not a suspended en dash.

      For the benefit of uncertain readers: 14–15 is a numerical range, where an en dash is preferred (though a hyphen is commonly applied). And 15-year-olds, with multiple hyphenation, is the standard form. Combine them and you get 14–15-year-olds. But the answer on Stack Exchange complicates things by adding ‘and’. In such a case I’d stick to hyphens: 14- and 15-year-olds.

  9. languagehat says:

    I have run across a beautiful and unexpected example of the usefulness of en dashes. I was editing an article on South-South migrations, which is a term of art for population movements within a Southern Hemisphere continent, as opposed to the more usual South-to-North migrations (e.g., Africans attempting to move to Europe). One of the heads referred to “South-South African Migrations”; the pull of the collocation “South African” is strong, but the lack of an en dash (which would be required if South Africa were being referred to) makes it clear that it is South-South migrations within Africa that are the referent.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s