A visible punctuation error that gets writers unbought!

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You want to get paid for your wordsmithing by some deep-pocketed, eagle-eyed editor who refuses to rewrite your mistakes, here’s something that can keep you poor and quickly rejected. Even worse, it’s easy to spot before the editor reads a word.

Learn how and when to use the “en” and “em” dashes right every time.

Worse yet, do you know that there are em dash, 2 em dash, and 3 em dash decisions too? And do you put a space before and after it or snug it up to the type every time it is used?

The dashes all get their names from their girth and volume. The “en” dash is the size of a hyphen and is the width of the letter “n”; the “em” dash is twice as wide (but all in one dash) because it’s the size of the fatter letter “m.”

“Look at me, I’m a simple en dash!”

The easy dash is the skinny brother, en.

You use the en dash all the time. It even has its own key on the keyboard, above and to the right of the letter “p.” And there are never blank spaces before or after it. It usually means “to” when you connect numbers in ranges, like dates (2001-2013), or months (June-July), or miracles, like the Cubs won the pennant game 9-1.

But you don’t use the single dash when the number or word is preceded by from or between (from…to, or between…and). Two examples: “The zoo is closed from November to February” or “It’s most comfortable when the temperature is between 65 and 77°F.”

The most confusing is when the en dash is used when joining compound modifiers where at least one of the words is an open compound (meaning not hyphenated) or is already hyphenated. Like, the Chicago-Rome connection, bridesmaid-approved dresses, or pre-election polling restrictions.

“No, look at ME, I’m a bewildering em dash!”

The em dash should look like ——, but it still appears (in earlier typed text) as two hyphens without a space between (because that was your only choice on old-fashioned typewriters.) The em dash is so common that it is what most mean when they say “a dash.” It’s used primarily in informal writing in place of a comma, colon, semicolon, or parentheses to provide emphasis.

You most often see it used to set off parenthetical expressions like “When I hit the high C—or tried to hit, or at least reach, the high C—the students broke out laughing!” I could have substituted with parentheses, but not a comma because commas cannot be used to set off parenthetical expressions when there is internal punctuation (commas inside the expressions.)

Two uses where the em dash, usually used in pairs, might appear alone:

“Betty, How could—Why would you do such a thing?”
“Can I finish my—,” the husband pleaded.

It can also be inserted, alone, in place of an unknown value in a table.

Where do you find em dashes on a keyboard? Go to “Insert/symbol/special characters” and both the em and en dashes will appear. But most software programs let you type two consecutive hyphens (no space between) and as you type the next item the double hyphen will also convert into an em dash.)

Don’t forget us: we’re double em and triple em!

I’m double and you see me used to indicate missing letters in a word, either because material is missing or illegible, or to conceal a name. Like Sister M ————. Or “Two of the players, ———— and ————, got thrown out for fighting.” (Notice that in blogs and computer text the spaces between the en dashes still appear? Imagine here they are joined, two in one.)

I’m triple em (didn’t you notice?) and I am much more formal. I am used in bibliographies when the author’s name is repeated, like

———————. Adventures in Dashes. New York: Big House Publisher, 2015.

Finally, do you insert a space before and after an em dash? It depends. They seem to do so almost all the time in England, and some U.S. newspapers (and a few magazines) do too. I don’t nor do I see it much where I publish (articles and books) and I think the trend is to join the em dash on both sides, like: “this is an example—albeit a bad one—of what…” I’d just be consistent throughout the piece and the editor will recognize and usually correct your weird style. But inconsistency, at least here, may drive the editor daft—or dafter. That will leave you—broke(r).

I hope this helps.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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