Em Dash, En Dash, or Dash? Get it Write!

Em Dash, En Dash, or Dash? Get it Write!

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If you read my blog at all, or many of my social posts, you know my disdain for the common online writer. In their rush to spill ill-timed and unthinking remarks, they splash the writing equivalent of pig swill across the text box and punctuate the effort by hitting ?send? a bit harder.

Their dramatic monologue is one long sentence without punctuation or capital letters, a veritable regurgitation of the splintered idea that came to mind only 10 seconds previously. Not that, in most cases, any use of punctuation or grammar would help them express their idea in the first place.

Perhaps you, too, quiver when you see such an immature, unschooled example of personal expression. I hurry to repeat, yet again, that our writing precedes us and leaves an impression on our readers. And we only get one chance to make a first impression.

That?s why I hesitate to even write on my chosen topic for today; it is akin to casting pearls before swine. And yet, many are unacquainted with a grammatical pearl writers call the em dash. Depending on its use, this little line offers writers the opportunity to emphasize, mute, interject, list, or even omit information in an elegant manner.

The Em Dash

The em dash is perhaps the most versatile punctuation mark. Depending on the context, the em dash can add both power and grace to your writing. Notwithstanding its versatility, the em dash is best limited to two appearances per sentence. Otherwise, confusion rather than clarity will reign.

Here?s an important point: do not mistake the em dash ( ? ) for the slightly narrower en dash (?) or the even narrower hyphen (-). Those marks serve different, albeit not as elegant, purposes.

Em dashes in place of commas

A pair of em dashes can be used in place of commas to enhance readability. However, in the writing world, dashes are always more emphatic than commas.

And yet, when the package was finally delivered ? nearly three months after it was ordered ? I decided I no longer wanted it, and left it in the care of the hapless delivery driver.

Em dashes in place of parentheses

A pair of em dashes can replace a pair of parentheses. Dashes are considered less formal than parentheses; they are also more intrusive. If you want to draw attention to the parenthetical content, use dashes. If you want to include the parenthetical content more subtly, use parentheses.

Important: when dashes are used in place of parentheses, surrounding punctuation should be omitted.

Upon discovering the errors (all 14 of them), the teacher immediately returned the essay.

Upon discovering the errors ? all 14 of them ? the teacher immediately returned the essay.

Important: when used in place of parentheses at the end of a sentence, only a single dash is used.

After three weeks in camp, the group was fed up with his cooking (or, rather, lack of cooking).

After three weeks in camp, the group was fed up with his cooking ? or, rather, lack of cooking.

The em dash in place of a colon

The em dash can be used in place of a colon when you want to emphasize the conclusion of your sentence. The dash is less formal than the colon.

After months of deliberation, the jurors reached a unanimous verdict ? guilty.

The white sand, the warm water, the sparkling sun ? this is what brought them to Dauphin Island.

Multiple em dashes

Two em dashes can be used to indicate missing portions of a word, whether unknown or intentionally omitted.

Mrs. H ? ? testified that the defendant yelled, ?Die, you ? ? ? ,? before swinging the axe.

From the faded and water-damaged note, we made out only this: ?Was ne ? ? y going to m ? ? K ? ?, but now ? ? t.?

When an entire word is missing, either two or three em dashes can be used. Whichever length you choose, use it consistently throughout your document. Surrounding punctuation should be placed as usual.

Spaces with the em dash

In web writing, the em dash is typically used without spaces on either side. Most newspapers, however, set the em dash off with a single space on each side.

Most newspapers ? and all that follow AP style ? insert a space before and after the em dash.

Producing the em dash

Many keyboards will automatically insert an em dash when you type a pair of hyphens together. Otherwise, you can use the ?insert symbol? command.

Em dashes save writers from making sentences awkward or cluttered with punctuation. More casual than colons and smoother than parentheses, em dashes take your work to the next level.

So, flaunt the em dash, use it wisely, decorate your essays with them, and perhaps, drop a pair into your next paragraph of internet writing. Let the pigs wallow and wonder at what it is ? you and I know it is a vestige of writing superpower.

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If you like this post, read and clap for my other posts here on Medium. You can also follow me on Twitter at Michael Stover and visit my website at https://www.michaeldstover.com.

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