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The Editing Hour: Save The Em-Dash!

I bet you had no idea the em-dash was endangered, did you? Well, when Julia Scheeres commented on my post about semicolons that she loves to use em-dashes as well, I remembered having read a tweet that said the em-dash had gone out of vogue with flared jeans and peasant shirts. I was shocked. So I did some research. And this is what I found:

According to Robert Bringhursts’s The Elements of Topographical Style, “The em dash is the nineteenth-century standard, still prescribed in many editorial style books, but the em dash is too long for use with the best text faces. Like the oversized space between sentences, it belongs to the padded and corseted aesthetic of Victorian typography.” According to Bringhurst, we should used spaced en-dashes – like these – instead of the closed-up em-dash—like this. His reason must be aesthetic and not practical because the extra spaces on either side of the en-dash take up as much space as an em-dash. (By the way, my en-dash looks suspiciously like a hyphen above, but in a word processor it is longer.)

A side note: if you’re wondering HOW to create an en-dash and an em-dash, you can do it my sloppy way, which is to type a word, then type two hyphens, then type the next word and a space after it to make an em-dash, and do the same but with spaces on either side of the hyphens to create an en-dash (word-space-hyphen-hypen-space-word). Or you can do it the proper way, which is to use option-hyphen for an en-dash and shift-option-hyphen for an em-dash on a Mac. On a PC, you type Alt-0150 for an en-dash and Alt-0151 for an em-dash. To make these characters on the web (which is a huge pain), you have to copy and paste them from a word processor.

Like the semicolon, the em-dash should be used sparingly (often commas will do the trick). If you’re wondering what an “m” is, by the way, it’s the distance of the length of one character in the font and font size you are using. In other words, a 12 point font = a 12 point m. Half an m is called an n, so an en-dash is half the length of an em-dash.

The most common use of the dash if to set off a parenthetical phrase—like this one—in the middle of a sentence. This goes for both the “new standard” – en-dashes with spaces – and the old standard—the em-dash with no spaces. But the en-dash has other uses. It is used, for example, to show a duration of time, a difference in distance, or a range of numbers. 3–4 p.m., American–Canadian border, 1–10 inches of rain.

I mention these other uses of the en-dash to point out that the en-dash is not going to go extinct if we don’t use it to set off parenthetical phrases. But the em-dash—what other use does it have? If we switch to the en-dash, it will go the way of the the woolly mammoth, the mastodon, the dodo bird. I can’t let that happen.

Please, save the em-dash! Use it, abuse it if you have to, but don’t lose it. The em-dash is your friend. It isn’t standoffish. It doesn’t need space. It just snuggles right up to the rest of the sentence. And it’s so elegant with its long, thin line stretching gracefully from word to word. Please, if you want to save the em-dash, sign your name below. Tell us where you’re from and why you support the em-dash. If not, if you’re in the camp that favors the ugly stepsister of the em-dash, the short, stubby en-dash with its extra padding, then make your case. Do it now. I’m open to persuasion. And bribery. Especially chocolate.

10 comments to The Editing Hour: Save The Em-Dash!

  • I love dash em, but didn't realize I was doing them the sloppy way. I didn't know there was another way to do them. 🙂

  • I remember getting my copy edits and thinking "What in the world is an em dash?" I had to google it! I mean, I used them, but thought they were just dashes. This is an informative and interesting post…thanks!

  • I use m-dashes every day (as well as semicolons)! And I try to train my students to do so, too–to know the difference between when to use one hyphen (n-dash) and when to use two. It's funny, I wouldn't have thought they were going "out"–my students still use them, but mistakenly make them just hyphens. So I would say the *need* is still there (we still use that structure of writing, in other words), but we don't have the typographical, punctuational knowledge to serve the need. (I don't know if "punctuational" is actually a word, but it sounds right, eh? 🙂 )

    Thanks for posting this!

  • Stina – I just learned the proper way to make dashes, too, but I think it will come in handy because when I do it the sloppy way, it only works once I hit the space bar after the word. If I don't space for whatever reason, the hyphens stay hyphens (at least on a Mac).

    Tess – Many years ago I applied for an internship at an obscure LA magazine. I told the editor I could help copyedit the text and she said, "Do you know what an n-dash it? Do you know what an m-dash is?" "Nnnnno," I quivered. "Then go take a copyediting class," she said. So I did, at UCLA. And it was very enlightening.

  • Karen – well, the USE of the dashes isn't going out of style, just the TYPE of dash. They still serve the same function. And I like the word "punctuational" 🙂

  • Kester Allen

    I use two hyphens for an em-dash and– usually– the software knows to do the right thing 🙂

  • Paul H. Yarbrough

    Now that's my kind of a typewriter.

  • Jackie

    I love me some em dashes! In Framemaker, the keyboard "shortcut" is ctrl+q shift+q. The fact that I have that insane combination of keystrokes memorized says a lot about how much I use em dashes.

  • Kester – Is your computer an honor student? 🙂

    Paul – Hi and welcome! You get extra points for "Following" Writerland over there in the sidebar! Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

    Jackie – I love them, too. I've never used Framemaker, but thanks for the shortcut info!

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