We live in a world of seeming chaos, in which each new day greets us with another unfathomable news story and fresh reminders of how this world is ultimately out of our personal control. We humans have developed various disorders in a vain attempt to order our world, such as anorexia nervosa and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Others of us turn to grammar. Our semi-arbitrary set of rules we impose on the world are a way of curbing the anarchy. We know that if people would simply say "could have" rather than "could of," the Gauls and Goths won't break down our doors just yet.
And so, I bring to you a public service announcement regarding dashes, those little lines that no one is taught how to use anymore. Do we use dashes – despite our lack of knowledge about them, or do we use dashes—despite our lack of knowledge about them. It is the latter.
There are two kinds of dashes: en dashes and em dashes, and one cousin of a dash, the hyphen.
Hyphens: You know what a hyphen is, the most diminutive dash (though it is not technically a dash). It connects compound words or indicates a word break at the end of a line: "This here is a clas-
-sic example of how mind-numbingly boring editors are."
En Dashes: An en dash is longer than a hyphen. It is used to signify "to" or "through" as in: "From 1992– 1994, I had atrocious bangs." Or: "To learn about existential despair, read Ecclesiastes 1– 2." An easy way to create an en dash in Microsoft Word is to write a word, type a space, type a hyphen, type a space, then type the next word. (Though I'm not a proponent for spaces before or after dashes.)
Em Dashes: An em dash is the longest, most grand dash. It is used to replace a comma, semicolon or parentheses to add emphasis or interrupt a thought. For example: "I love grammar—except when people get all sanctimonious about it." You can create an em dash in Microsoft Word by typing a word, then typing two hyphens, then typing the next word.
I hope these distinctions will help you to order your world against the impending apocalypse. And the next time someone corrects your grammar or punctuation, think not only, "My, what an aggravating nitpick," but also, "Ah, my fellow man, who tries to make sense on this swirling ball of chaos, just as I do."