I believe one major reason that proper usage of en-dash, em-dash, hyphen, minus sign, and quotation dash can be so frustrating is because they convey information already given by the context of the mark.

Are there instances where the use of one of the strikingly similar punctuation marks listed would resolve an ambiguity? I am struggling to imagine a phrase which could be interpreted differently depending on which punctuation was used, and I am confident I have never closely inspected the length of one of these marks in order to better understand a statement.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Edwin Ashworth, Drew, Cascabel, Glorfindel, curiousdannii May 6 '17 at 13:12

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 3
    I think it's worth noting that there really are only two different symbols, in practice. The hyphen is used for hyphenated words (and minus sign and a few other non-linguistic purposes). The dash (usually typed as a double hyphen) is used to represent a separation or pause in speech or thought. Unless you're a typesetter or have OCD the other terms are superfluous. – Hot Licks May 5 '17 at 20:25
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    This is not a question about English for which there can be an answer, it is one of the “…types of questions should I avoid asking?” in the Help Centre in the category: ‘there is no actual problem to be solved: “I’m curious if other people feel like I do.’”. (Or perhaps “a rant in disguise: ‘______ sucks, am I right?’”). – David May 5 '17 at 21:11
  • One typeface's n-dash is another typeface's ... – Edwin Ashworth May 5 '17 at 21:39
  • @HotLicks : I was only made aware of these because a publication of mine came back with a grumpy rant about my misuse of them a few years back. – 7yl4r May 6 '17 at 0:12
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    @HotLicks Good thing I’m a typesetter, then, ’cause I definitely use both hypens, en dashes, and em dashes in regular writing (e.g. “A one-way ticket London–Paris—quite a short distance—is ridiculously expensive”), and I’m quite sure I don’t have OCD. ;-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 6 '17 at 9:41
up vote 14 down vote accepted

You can easily construct a "garden-path" sentence based on a phrasal verb where the choice of punctuation can clearly show whether you meant it to be a phrasal verb or not:

She was upset by my carrying-on top of everything else-her credit card.
She was upset by my carrying—on top of everything else—her credit card.

In the first sentence, you have to stop and reinterpret "carrying-on" as not being a gerund form of "carry on" but as a simple verb, interrupted by a prepositional clause. The use of the em-dash is not strictly necessary, but it is clearly an aid to smooth reading.

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    This example is all very well but a dash is often set off by spaces (en-dash or hyphen abused as dash, not em-dash) which would give a decent clue as to the meaning of the sentence. – Chris H May 5 '17 at 20:47
  • Well done! I did trip on that first one. – 7yl4r May 6 '17 at 0:22
  • I feel (but can't find examples to support) that this kind of problem would be even worse at the end of lines, where hyphens are used for continuation. – Tim Pederick May 6 '17 at 5:11
  • IDGI, I interpret both of those as entirely identical sentences with identical meaning. – DeadMG May 6 '17 at 9:16
  • @DeadMG: A "garden path sentence" is one that you (or at least, some readers) have to re-parse earlier parts of. Some readers will first read this sentence as "She was upset by my carrying-on...", i.e. "I was carrying on [acting in an inappropriate and attention-grabbing way], and that upset her". – Tim Pederick May 7 '17 at 11:37

The purpose of hyphens and dashes and, indeed, virtually all punctuation and other printing conventions is not generally to add meaning but rather to make parsing the existing meaning faster, easier, and/or more pleasant.

So you could write

I am expecting to fill two interview slots—one from 12:30–1:00 p.m. and another from 2:30–3:00 p.m.—for the secretary-treasurer position.

using all one symbol:

I am expecting to fill two interview slots-one from 12:30-1:00 p.m. and another from 2:30-3:00 p.m.-for the secretary-treasurer position.

But the former is, to me, at least a little bit easier on the eyes and a little bit easier to comprehend on the first pass.

Note that even conventions like different cases of letters, or spaces between words, are not an inherent feature of written language (see Wikipedia). Obviously, even the second sentence above is significantly easier to understand than

IAMEXPECTINGTOFILLTWOINTERVIEWSLOTSONEFROM1230100PMANDANOTHERFROM230300PMFORTHESECRETARYTREASURERPOSITION

but even that can be deciphered based on contextual clues.

Of course, there are a myriad of other printing conventions that professional typesetters use to make reading a more seamless and enjoyable experience, that we don't attempt to duplicate in everyday communications (for example, customized kerning, or adjusting the space between letters, just to name one of the most basic). And it is possible to make substitutions for most dashes and hyphens; this is largely a matter of style and personal preference. For example:

I am expecting to fill two interview slots (one from twelve-thirty to one in the afternoon, and another from two-thirty to three) for the combined secretary and treasurer position.

However, most of us would like the option to use some aspects of the first example, so hyphens and dashes are probably not going away anytime soon.

Bottom line, if the extra keystrokes required for various dashes is really bothersome to you, you can leave them out; you can either use extra hyphens to approximate them, or substitute other punctuation or extra words to clarify your meaning (or live with the possibility of ambiguity and re-reading on the part of your audience). However, keeping them in your writing toolbox will give you more options for writing sentences clearly and concisely.

  • Is the premise "The purpose of [...] virtually all punctuation and other printing conventions is not generally to add meaning but rather to make parsing the existing meaning faster, easier, and/or more pleasant" really true? There is a big difference between "Let's eat grandma!" and "Let's eat, grandma!" – 7yl4r May 6 '17 at 0:18
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    @7yl4r My point isn't that punctuation doesn't help with clarifying potentially ambiguous statements, it's that it does help, even though it is theoretically possible to get by without it. If commas didn't exist, the 1st version would usually still mean you want Grandma to come eat, it just would be harder to tell when it was really an exhortation to cannibalism. At one time, for example, the sentence might have been punctuated Let's eat. Grandma. That worked, sort of, but that doesn't mean commas are redundant or un-useful. – 1006a May 6 '17 at 0:45
  • +1 for "The purpose of hyphens and dashes and, indeed, virtually all punctuation and other printing conventions is not generally to add meaning but rather to make parsing the existing meaning faster, easier, and/or more pleasant." – Kartik May 6 '17 at 7:15
  • @7yl4r Real life example: Just the other day I watched a literature discussion on TV. One participant ranted several minutes that the German translation of the book "God help this child" used the title "Gott, hilf dem Kind" as if the original had a comma (i.e., "God, help the child"). – Hagen von Eitzen May 6 '17 at 7:41
  • @HagenvonEitzen Presumably they wanted it to be Gott helfe dem Kind? – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 6 '17 at 9:36

I think this pair works. The first is a plausible sentence (think sailing), and if you wrote the second instead of the first, people would have a very hard time figuring out what you meant.

I found the wind—up river from the Jones's house.
I found the wind-up river from the Jones's house.

But I think the only pair of punctuation marks that might create ambiguity are the hyphen and the dash.

  • I don’t see what’s so difficult about the second one. Do you not wind up your rivers where you live? :-þ – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 6 '17 at 9:32

The n-dash (–) is used for ranges and the dash (-) for hyphenation. These two cases can yield ambiguity.

For example, "a-b" implies a pairing and "a−b" implies a range—these are very different.

  • If you're talking about some specific discipline, please name it. Otherwise no; not in general English, it doesn't. – Robbie Goodwin May 26 '17 at 19:11

Suppose Margot Beste-Chetwynde (from the novel Decline and Fall) collaborates on a mathematical paper with Paul Pennyfeather. Their theorem might well be called the Pennyfeather–Beste-Chetwynde Theorem, with an en-dash between the names and a hyphen inside the double-barrelled name.

  • I see the ambiguity your use of the en-dash is trying to resolve, and agree that something is needed to resolve it. However, I do not think that is proper usage of the en-dash (is it?), and I do not think it successfully resolves the ambiguity (the hyphen and en-dash look too similar for this usage). – 7yl4r May 7 '17 at 18:00
  • It seems very clear 7yl4r is vastly more right than wrong. Why is it not clear that the Pennyfeather–Beste-Chetwynde Theorem needs spaces around the dash between Pennyfeather and Beste… and not between Beste-Chetwynde? Why is it not clear that two different names working together are not to be treated in anything like the same way as a single double-barrelled name? – Robbie Goodwin May 26 '17 at 19:18

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