We spend a lot of time writing—conveying ideas. Writing is critical to communicating, but it is not the same as thinking. It takes some processing. (Check out our last article, Rethinking Writing #1, for a discussion of this concept.) And while we are certainly not all called to be language master’s, there is a certain level of competence expected in professional communication. Don’t be left on the embarrassing side of these common mistakes:
Hyphens vs. Dashes
Hyphens are not dashes, and dashes actually come in two widths: “em” dashes and “en” dashes.
A hyphen is used to make compound words like “world-class”. They are also used in phone numbers.
An “en” dash is longer than a hyphen and is used to indicate a range, like “pp. 27–29”.
An “em” dash is twice as long as an “en” dash and is used to indicate a break in thought or to give emphasis to an explanation or side note, similar to commas and parenthesis. “That building—so full of character—is worth preserving.”
*[An “em” dash can also be typed as a hyphen with a space on either side: ” – “.]
That vs. Which
The distinction between “that” and “which” has to do with whether an adjectival clause is restrictive or non-restrictive. (An adjectival clause is when a part of a sentence acts to describe the subject).
“That” is used for restrictive clauses—clauses that cannot be removed without altering the meaning of a sentence. Example: “The plans that we delivered were approved.” (Depending on context, the clause “that we delivered” could be crucial to indicate exactly which plans are being talked about).
“Which” is used for nonrestrictive clauses and is usually set apart with commas: “The plans, which we delivered, were approved.” (Again, the context is what matters. In this case, “which we delivered” is additional information, and not critical to the meaning of the statement. The sentence could stand alone as “The plans were approved”).
Space after a Period
In the era of typewriters, it was common practice to follow a period with two spaces for visual readability. All digital fonts now include this spacing automatically and thus it is incorrect to manually add an extra space after a period.
Insure, Ensure, Assure
These words all have different meanings, and especially in a legal sense, these meanings matter. Assure is most often used in relation to people and means “to give assurance”, to help convince that something will happen. Ensure deals with making certain something is true, and usually relates to actions and things. Insure is similar to ensure, but carries with it a legal sense, namely that some form of guarantee or collateral is being offered to add surety for something.
Removing Extra Words
Irregardless? Should just be regardless: “I will be there regardless of the cost.” Off of? Should just be off: “We came off the mountain.” Is because? Should just be is: “The reason is we can’t afford it.” Where…to? Should just be where: “Where are you going?” These ones? Should just be these: “I prefer these.”*
*[While “these ones” is usually redundant and an improper pluralization of “one”, there is a case for using “these ones” in dialogue, particularly in relation to identifying a sub-group without restating the noun. The question “Which shoes do you prefer?” could be answered with “I prefer these red shoes” or “I prefer these red ones”.]
Compound words come in three categories: Open (like bowling alley), Hyphenated (like ill-favored) and Closed (like notebook). For most hyphenations, refer to a dictionary for correct usage. In certain instances, a temporary hyphenation is useful to help avoid ambiguity. For example, “The fast sailing ship” means a sailing ship that is fast. “The fast-sailing ship” means a ship that has the attribute of being able to sail fast. While “fast-sailing” is not a conventional hyphenation, its use helps clarify the intent of the phrase.