Among my many faults as a writer, I tend to overuse the dash—the em-dash, that is. A colon would work just fine in beginning a list or creating a long enough pause to make the phrase or clause that follows resonant and conclusive. Parentheses (or brackets, to my UK readers) are perfectly adequate for signaling a subordinate clause. Dashes are very demonstrative orthographically, and in a cluster they can turn even the most elegant prose into Morse code. So, I’m working hard to keep my dashes to a minimum.
I’m also a sucker for compound adjectives, even more so than, say, the English poet Philip Larkin. All those adjectival clusters need their hyphens, except (so American English would have it) when one adjective is an adverb: for instance, “catastrophically decisive victory.” Whereas excessive use of dashes acts like a laxative on one’s prose, over-hyphenation has the opposite effect, leaving every sentence dense and clogged. Use only with care.
Last but not least: the en-dash. I have a fondness for these oft-forgotten prose stylists, perhaps because I’m an avid reader of The New York Review of Books and the editors at that esteemed journal seem particularly keen to fit at least one in each review essay. The en-dash has a set of specialized, but very useful skills, like the closer in baseball. These are:
1. When you have a compound adjective constructed out of a compound word. Thus “Civil War–era uniform” requires an en-dash, since “Civil War” is its own compound.
2. Dates: “1820–1885”: The en-dash here serves to signify “to.” This is also the case with direction: “Topeka–Chicago railroad.”
3. Words that are compounded in contradictory ways, also showing direction or time: “north–south divide,” “East–West conflict.” As you can see, the noun here indicates that these items are conjoined only in their dissension. The “Sykes-Picot agreement” caused a lot of conflict, but Mr. Sykes and M. Picot were working as one, and therefore are joined with an ordinary hyphen.
Ironically, Wikipedia thinks that these two imperial gentlemen should be connected by an en-dash, which only leads one to the sad realization that if we cannot even have concord over the length of the dash, then what hope for peace in the Middle East? Of course, a reasonable case could be made that the entente cordiale disguises the fact that these were two distinct persons, and not somebody called Fred Sykes-Picot. As you can see, therefore, a little less dash is sometimes a good thing.