I’m moving along to more lookalike punctuation today, since I’m eager to see what new things I can learn writing on these. On a high level note, let me say that what I’m sharing today is language- and culture-specific and therefore not universally applicable, and subject to change. I should also mention that this is a fuzzy area that tends to test the boundaries and overlaps between typography, language, and grammar.
You probably know the most common uses of hyphens, the stubby, multipurpose half-dashes. They push apart and tie together suffixes, prefixes, words, and phrases. The often-derided mark, hated for its careless and prevalent misuse, has quite a few proper uses, hyphenation for one. Throughout this piece I’ve attempted to use hyphens in just about every way hyphens are commonly used. Maybe not E-V-E-R-Y S-I-N-G-L-E way, since some are kind of annoying. All the characters described below could potentially, and are frequently represented by hyphens.
When instructed to do so, layout software may insert hyphens, according to a hyphenation dictionary, when a word’s length suggests that it break from one line to the next. Non-breaking hyphens, useful in things like phone numbers or hyphenated proper nouns, ensure that these elements won’t be line-broken by hyphenation algorithms should they too closely approach the edge of the text column. Be particularly wary of hyphenation when it can critically alter the meaning of some unique identifier, such as a URL, e-mail address, etc.. There are other ways of keeping this hyphenation-prone info unbroken, such as by applying a ‘no break’ character style (or on the web, specifying
white-space: nowrap; to the element’s style).
Discretionary hyphens serve as a kind of override to InDesign’s hyphenation system. The easiest way to see how they work is to find a word that’s been hyphenated and insert a discretionary hyphen nearer the beginning of the word. The cursor above (fourth line, near the end) inserts a discretionary hyphen giving the below result. You can do this in InDesign via Type > Insert Special Character > Hyphens and Dashes > Discretionary Hyphen, or keyboard shortcut: Command + Shift + hyphen (Mac), or Ctrl+Shift+hyphen (Windows). These are ‘soft’ hyphens by the way, meaning that unless the word is sufficiently close to the edge, you won’t see any difference in behavior. (With hidden characters visible, you’ll be able to see it.)
The en dash is longer and generally not as heavy a stroke as a hyphen and suggests a range between two specified points. We’re open 7–11, Mon–Fri, etc. How you typeset your en dashes, whether flush or with a hair space between its neighbors, is up to you or the applicable style guide you may be required to follow for a given job.
“Let’s just forget about the em dash and leave it to Victorian literature,” or something like that is what I recall being the thrust of Robert Bringhurst’s feelings on the subject. The em dash is the longest of the dashes, used primarily to preserve in time one thought—while momentarily breaking off into a different direction—before returning. Or not. I think Bringhurst’s main quarrel with the mark is that it’s too disruptive, because it’s too long. Some suggest that we just replace it with a suspended en dash – a fine alternative. Another just as good alternative? Provided your em dash is a simple rectangle, you can scale it to whatever length necessary, set up a character style, and apply it to all em dashes in your document.
And a general note to people who use a hyphen with no spaces around it to signify an em dash—you are headed for a misunderstanding. The general layperson workaround is to type two hyphens in succession. I’ve also seen this handwritten far too many times.
For typesetting math, use the minus sign as an operator, or for specifying negative numbers. Often, typographers will use an en dash if there’s no minus sign in the character set of a given font, or if they’re too lazy to go looking for it, but not lazy enough to use—well, you know.