Hyphen Tension

A ‘hyphen’ is not a ‘dash’

Precision is necessary in a lot of things in journalism—facts, spelling of names, etc. It’s also vital in Web addresses—tell someone the wrong URL, and that person could be viewing porn instead of your site.

So it’s annoying, if not misleading, to have people mistake—in speech— that little symbol that is so important: the “hyphen.”

A “hyphen” connects things, like compound modifiers (six-year-old boy). That’s what it’s used for in Web addresses, too. Reasons for using a hyphen in a domain name include the belief that search engines read hyphens more readily than underscores (_) or tildes (~), or to create a domain name similar to one that already exists (c-j-r.org, anyone?).

Invariably, though, the Web address with a hyphen is spoken aloud as “C dash J dash R dot org.”

The same is true with phone numbers—when a punctuation mark is mentioned at all, “Call me at 555 dash 123 dash 4567” is much more common than “555 hyphen …”

A dash is a longer horizontal line. It marks a sharper interruption—like this—or, in some styles, a range. For you punctuation freaks—or those who remember hot type—there are actually two common kinds of dashes—an “en dash” and the “em dash,” twice as wide as the “en.” Most news organizations use only the “em dash,” which we will nickname here simply “the dash.”

In writing, a “hyphen” and a “dash” serve discrete functions. So why not in speech, too?

You can’t actually type a “dash” in most word processors—most people type two “hyphens.” But your word processor may automatically change two “hyphens” into a “dash.”

OK, it’s true that not a lot of people are likely to try to type a dash into a Web address—and even if they did, they’re not likely to go to a porn site. Browsers don’t translate two hyphens into a dash, and if they did, the address would probably show as nonexistent.

That’s not the point. The point is that if you said the White House’s address was “One comma six zero zero Pennsylvania Avenue,” it would be wrong. Punctuation marks deserve respect, dash it all.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.