Дефис, тире

by Don  

No one on the planet is as joyfully anal-retentive as copy editors, those people responsible for the proper positioning of commas and quotation marks in printed works. In English doubtless their greatest joy is knowing the difference between a hyphen, an en dash, and an em dash. The Russians also are not bereft of this joy, and thus today we will discuss the differences between the дефис hyphen and the тире dash. The former is a perfectly regular masculine noun, and the latter is an indeclinable neuter noun.

Just as in English, in Russian the дефис hyphen is used to break words into syllables or to split a word at the end of a line. It is also used in words ending in -то and -нибудь, etc; words beginning with кое-; and adverbs beginning with по-:

кое-ктоa certain someone
по-русскиin the Russian fashion
по-моемуin my opinion

The тире, called a dash by most English speakers and called an “em dash” by the typographically more sophisticated, is used quite a bit more in Russian than in English. First off, it is used to mark direct speech. In this case no quotation marks are used, and the тире occurs at the beginning of a new paragraph and is followed immediately by a space:

— Где ты живёшь?
— На четвёртом этаже.
“Where do you live?”
“On the fourth floor.”

When used to indicate a range of numerical values, then the тире is used with no spaces on either side:

Мы будем в Питере 3—4 дня.
We will be in St. Petersburg for three or four days.

In all other uses of the тире it should have spaces on both sides. Note that this is different from English, where no spaces are to be used around an em dash. One use of this type of тире that takes some getting used to for American students is in sentences where English would use is, am, or are, which of course the Russians mostly leave out in the present tense. The Russians also use it when they are leaving out other implied words:

Мой отец — геолог.
My father is a geologist.
Папа любит острое, а мама — сладкое.
Dad likes hot stuff, and Mom (likes) sweet stuff.

We should point out one picky detail: Russian typewriters don't have a key for the тире. The same is true for most standard Russian computer keyboards. For that reason in manually typed documents you will often find «два дефиса подряд» “two hyphens in a row” substituting for a тире. Yes, you type spaces on both sides. Of course in this day of slap-dash internet discourse, most people don't bother with the double hyphen for тире; instead they just write a single hyphen with spaces on either side.

Doubtless there is someone out there thinking, “I just won't be happy if I can't use both тире and дефисы in my e-mail and web compositions.” Ah, that kind of love of detail warms my heart. And I will warm your heart, dear reader, by pointing out that the “Russian for Gringos” keyboards allow you to use both with great ease; in Russian mode to get an em dash you simply hold down the ctrl key while simultaneously tapping the hyphen key. Without the ctrl key you get the regular hyphen.

Finally, if all this just feels way too complicated for you, you may simplify your life with a Russian computer keyboard for blondes.


Comment from: Edgar [Visitor]

Yes, Don, you are correct. Perhaps Russian teacher was also a French teacher. It was my experience that many people in the public schools taught Russian by being one page ahead of their students in the traditional grammar-based Russian texts.

09/01/09 @ 16:56
Comment from: it-ogo [Visitor]

I was taught that English “fourth floor” corresponds to Russian “пятый этаж” because “первый этаж” means “ground floor".

Don responds: In the US the ground floor is called the first floor, so the Russian numbering of floors and the US numbering are the same. Perhaps one of our readers can comment on how floors are numbered in the UK, Australia, or other English-speaking country? I believe the French first floor corresponds to the Russian/American second floor.

08/31/09 @ 00:10

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