Grammar Gremlins: Punctuating With Dash(es)

Honorary Grammar Gremlin Gerry Bartlett recently asked, “What is the difference between an en dash and an em dash?”

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On the typographical level, the difference is width. The hyphen, up there on the number row of the keyboard, is the narrowest, the basic “dash.” The en dash is a little wider, the width of a typeset N. The em dash, traditionally typed with two hyphens, is the widest, the width of a typeset M.

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That wasn’t, of course, what Gerry was asking about. The three dashes do indeed have different functions.

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The humble hyphen has two simple uses. The first, to break a word between syllables at the end of a line, is less important than it once was. We used to do this by hand on typewriters in a vain effort to even up the right margin; these days our writing software doesn’t do this unless forced, passing the job on to typesetter or formatter. But the hyphen still earns its keep pulling together compound words of various sorts: a three-year-old child, a money-back guarantee, a state-of-the-art computer system, a real eye-opener, check-in is over there.

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The en dash is used to indicate a range of numbers: We studied chapters 2–5. The years 1956–1960 were pretty dull. My team beat yours 13–7. The en dash can also indicate direction (north–south), connection (the Houston–Dallas–Waco run), or conflict (a hopeless liberal–conservative argument).

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We genre fiction writers don’t use the en dash a lot, perhaps in part because, as you have probably noticed, there is no en dash key on our computer keyboards. In Windows software, you can produce an en dash by holding the alt key and typing 0150 on the numerical keypad. In Word, you can type ctrl + minus (note, that’s the minus sign on the numerical keypad, not the hyphen on the number row), which, I find, does not work in Scrivener. (On a Mac, try alt + minus. I’m a PC person, so I can’t check that out myself.)

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The em dash, on the other hand, is a favorite with many of us. We often use a pair of em dashes in place of a pair of commas or parentheses, usually for added emphasis. She brought her notebooks—all fourteen of them—to the workshop. That dog—bark, bark, bark—is driving me nuts. She reminded me of her grievances—as if I could forget.

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The em dash is also used to indicate a sudden stop, usually in dialog: “I tried to stop him, but he—” or “Stop, before you fall over the—. Oops.” Two em dashes, or even three, are used to indicate missing words or names: Mr. — — will testify in secret. The damaged note read “Give me the — — or I’ll — — your — —.” (Surely there’s a story there.)

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The em dash, fortunately, is a little easier to type. Most Windows programs will autoformat a double hyphen into an em dash, provided there is no blank space before or after. If you do need blank spaces, as in the double em dash examples above, use alt + 0151 or ctrl + alt + minus. (On a Mac, try alt + shift + minus.)

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Style guides differ with regard to spacing: newspapers following the AP Style Guide use a space before and after en or em dashes. No one else does, so for manuscript typing avoid blank spaces before or after any of the dashes—except for multiple em dashes replacing omitted words.

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Researching all this dashing punctuation, we found a new and very handy resource on line, www.thepunctuationguide.com. The Gremlins plan to visit that site again soon.

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