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“On Em dash, on En dash, on Prancer, on Vixen”

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In the spirit of the holidays, I thought I’d have a Yuletide-themed article this month. One of Santa’s eight tiny reindeers is, of course, Dasher. So let’s talk a little about dashes. (Okay, that’s the lamest Christmas connection ever. Well, that’s all I’ve got. Apologies to all of you, whether you celebrate Christmas or not.)

Having a client who is adept at em and en dashes is indeed rare. Usually we see the plain ol’ regular hyphen being used where an em or en dash would be more appropriate. Or we often see random hyphens in varying multiples scattered throughout a paper like sprinkles on a Christmas cookie (okay, I’m still trying, but I’ll quit).

An em dash is the longer of the two dashes. It is used primarily to set off “an amplifying or explanatory element,” as CMS16 16.82 says. In other words, the em dash is similar in most cases to parentheses, commas, and colons. When to use an em dash rather than the other punctuation marks is usually a matter of judgment. Although CMS does not make any particular suggestions about how much is too much, it is probably best to be more sparing than not with em dashes. If commas, parentheses, or colons seem to work just fine, it’s probably best to use them.

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I tend to use em dashes instead of parentheses or colons when special emphasis seems warranted or when there is already punctuation (usually commas) within the material to be set off. A couple of examples from CMS16 illustrate this well:

“The influence of three impressionists—Monet, Sisley, and Degas—is obvious in her work.”

“My friends—that is, my former friends—ganged up on me.”

These examples illustrate both situations I mentioned. There are already commas in the set-off material, so surrounding it with more commas in either of these sentences would create quite a bit of confusion; it wouldn’t be clear how the commas are supposed to be functioning in relation to the material. And both of these examples warrant special emphasis, so parentheses would be less effective. The names of the three impressionists in the first example are not incidental—in fact, they are the main point of the sentence—and the em dashes focus special attention on them. (Hey, nice use of em dashes in that previous sentence; a break in thought is another common use of the em dash.) You can just hear the sarcasm dripping from the second sentence, which would hardly have been as venomous if “that is, my former friends” had been in parentheses.

Be careful of using multiple em dashes in the same sentence, though. The point of punctuation is to clarify the relationship between words, phrases, and clauses (hence the use of em dashes in the first place!), so when it’s not clear what belongs to what, a new punctuation strategy is called for. Let me expand one of CMS’s examples: “The influence of three impressionists—Monet, Sisley, and Degas—is obvious in her work—though the influence of three abstract artists—Picasso, Pollock, and Matisse—can also be seen in her more recent paintings.” That’s just getting too complicated, and the sense of the sentence starts falling apart.

Sometimes em dashes are used like colons when setting off an introductory noun or series of nouns, usually when a pronoun introduces the main clause. The following are examples from CMS16:

“Consensus—that was the will-o’-the-wisp he doggedly pursued.”

“Darkness, thunder, a sudden scream—nothing alarmed the child.”

The em dash’s smaller sibling, the en dash, generally has a much more restricted use—connecting mostly numbers, though sometimes it connects words. In essence, the en dash most typically substitutes for the word “through” or “to,” but it indicates a closed range of values. The following examples are from CMS16 6.78:

“The years 1993–2000 were heady ones for the computer literate.”

“On November 20, 1966, Green Bay defeated Chicago, 13–6.”

Notice that it is more appropriate to use an en dash than a hyphen in documentation for page ranges (hypothetical excerpt from an APA references page entry: ProofreadingPal Journal, 1, 46–58).

This example uses an en dash with words: “The London–Paris train leaves at two o’clock.”

Of course, there are several other appropriate uses of both the em and en dash; consult your trusty CMS for more on those.

A technical note: Em and en dashes should not have spaces before or after them. Close them up to the surrounding words.

How do you make these dashes in Word? If your AutoCorrect is set properly, type two hyphens after a letter and immediately type your next word and the hyphens will convert to an em dash after you hit the space bar the first time. How about an en dash? Follow the same process, but put a space before and after the two hyphens; they will be converted to an en dash. Unfortunately, you end up with those extra spaces, which need to be deleted. You can also insert dashes from the Insert>Symbol function, but that’s awfully cumbersome. There are some keyboard shortcuts, too, but they depend on what kind of keyboard you have (I won’t go into details; you can look it up). Sometimes what I do, if it’s convenient, is just copy and paste once I get an em or en dash in a text. Or I just make them ready to go in a separate blank document for copying and pasting.

I’m sure you noticed that I studiously avoided trying to make a Santa joke when I mentioned clauses. Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I’m sure you’re glad. So I’ll just end with this new ProofreadingPal motto: “On em dash, on en dash, if you blunder, we’ll fix ’em!”

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