re: Help for Em-Dashaholics

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

You recently answered a question about seeing spots (ellipses). I’m wallowing in dashes, like these: —. Can you explain why dashes are different lengths and when to use which?

Sincerely,

Randalf

Dear Randalf…

You’ve come to the right person—I’m an em-dashaholic, and their overuse is an urge I constantly stifle. It’s just that they’re so darned useful! Em-dashes are those long dashes that indicate a break in a line of thought—and I love interrupting myself. You can use them to add dramatic emphasis or an explanation to the main clause as I have here. They have more kick than a comma, which is why I adore them. Em-dashes are the length of the “m” in your chosen font, with no spaces on either side. Their close buddies are en-dashes, which are half the measure of the “m” and signal a range, such as 1 – 4. En-dashes do have spaces on either side of them. Now, don’t confuse those little guys with the even shorter hyphen, which is a dash that separates numbers that are not a range, like a phone number (555-7676), as well as compound words such as “all-out.” Hyphens touch the letters or numbers on either side.

You can find both em- and en-dashes in your word processing program’s symbols section. Or make the computer do it for you:

  • Em-dash: using your hyphen key, type two dashes between words with no spaces on either side and the program will automatically change the dashes to a single em-dash when you’re done with the second word. So “thoughtdashdashand” becomes “thought—and”
  • En-dash: type a single dash with your hyphen key, with single spaces on both sides, when you want to indicate a range. Your program will automatically change your dash to an en-dash, turning “1 dash 4” into “1 – 4”

Happy writing!

The Editor

3 Comments

  1. Sometimes you have to force the program to create an em-dash. If your em-dash is immediately followed by quotation marks, the program ignores your two hyphens. You have to type a letter in there and then a word space, and once the program creates the dash, you have to go back and delete the letter and word space.

  2. Dear Editor,

    I’m another em-dashaholic. We should form a club! It’s funny, though, ’cause my copyeditor at Little, Brown had me add spaces on both sides of my em-dashes throughout my novels, so I adopted the habit. Just today at my job-job we were told not to add spaces around these little devils. I did some research and found that both versions are acceptable, but try and convince the powers that be. (Sigh) I guess there’s always Find & Replace.

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