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Red Pen Diaries: A Dash of Drama

When my 12-year-old nephew, Caleb, asked what I was going to write about for the next installment of Red Pen Diaries, I said: "The em dash." He confessed that he didn't know what that was. "Neither do most adults," I explained.

First, what the em dash is not: It's not a hyphen, as in "small-business owner" (not to be confused with "small business owner" — how small is he?).

Nor is it an en dash, found here: "'Stairway to Heaven' appears on pp. 16–18 of your hymnals." Nor is it the dash in Morse code that is equal to three dots (at least I don't think it is).

The em dash, my friends, is the mother of all dashes, the big one, the one that's as long as the typeset capital letter "M." It's what we talk about when we talk about dashes, sometimes simply known as "a dash." (Two hyphens side by side [--] sometimes stand in for the em dash.)

I heartily agree with Grammar Girl's assessments that, " ... a dash is quite a dramatic punctuation mark ... A dash interrupts the flow of the sentence and tells the reader to get ready for some important and dramatic statement ... [Y]ou don't want to follow a dash with something boring or mundane."

(I agree with Grammar Girl about most things, by the way, but not her contention that " ... there are no spaces between the dash and the words around it." She concedes that this is a style choice but recommends "using no spaces." Since I worked strictly in media for a good 10 years before making my way to you, I came to rely on the Associated Press Stylebook, which states: "Put a space on both sides of a dash in all uses except the start of a paragraph and sports agate summaries." [Sports agate summaries?] I also like some visual breathing room — a dash of white space — around my dashes.)

Certainly, import and drama can be conveyed with a dash: "When she turned the page, she was stunned by what she read — the Buddha had died from food poisoning." But they're also quite handy in setting up the important or dramatic. Here are a few skillful examples of the latter (from Pope Brock's wonderful Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him, And the Age of Flimflam).

  • "What an anticlimax — or so one might have thought."
  • "A great gulf yawned between the opposing parties — though a stranger might have needed some guidance at first distinguishing the two."
  • "Power gone, youth destroyed — but not yet, not quite yet."
Each one of those lines really makes you want to read the next one.

Then there's the middle-of-the-sentence, two-dash construction, which generally serves to bolster or elaborate. Here, a complete sentence is set off by dashes inside another sentence: "Some questioned how novel the treatment actually was — Pope Innocent VII in the fifteenth century had sought to revivify himself by drinking the blood of little boys — but Guillaumin's friends and family said it had done wonders for him."

That bit about Pope Innocent VII (also from "Charlatan") surely serves to bolster the writer's suggestion that the practice of "injecting small amounts of a young person's blood into an older person" was, by the early 1920s, old hat. In the following instance ("Charlatan" again), the dashes bookend an elaboration: "On the tables were butter in pound blocks and baskets of fresh rye; on the plates were the expected — Wiener schnitzel, apple pancakes — and the unexpected: eels in aspic, roast venison, and 'owls to order.'" Mmm ... owls to order.

Like much else about writing, dashes take practice. After a while, you get a feel for them and just know where they should go. But with such power comes some responsibility. I urge you to use dashes sparingly or risk diluting their impact. I prefer not to use more than one dash construction per paragraph. And take steps not to write yourself into a sentence you can't write your way out of. Even if you can write your way out of a paragraph-long sentence strewn with dashes, parentheses and commas, should you? In a word: no. It offends the eye and confuses the reader.

This dash through the dash isn't meant to be a comprehensive treatise on the topic. For that you might turn to my first love, the Chicago Manual of Style, which has more to say on the subject than I care to. But I do care to say that I hope this brief discussion makes you notice the dashes you'll likely encounter the next time you pick up a book (or e-reader). Perhaps you'll even take a moment to see how they've been used and say to yourself, "I can do that — I am a writer!"

Are you the dashing sort? Dash off a comment below and tell us all about it.

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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday May 6th 2010, 8:55 AM
Comment by: Kathryn D.
Thanks. It is a constant refrain: explaining to colleagues the difference between an em dash, an en dash, and a hyphen. Moreover, explaining that in the wonderful world of computers you don't need a double hyphen, which is a relic of the typewriter, and never used in formal typesetting. You can actually use an em dash--that is, unless you are typing in the comments section of a blog! Yet some websites, including quite prominent ones (I'm thinking of Talking Points Memo), insist on their --s.

The spacing is always a source of debate during copy editing. Although I am usually firm in my opinions on usage and "Words into Type," on this I am flexible. I understand your desire -- or perhaps need -- for breathing room. The spaces can also serve as an alternative to ellipses, and convey a build up of tension or emotion. Spaces can enhance the mood of happy expectancy in the reader as to what the writer is going to come up with now. The New York Times puts spaces around the em dash. New York Magazine and The Atlantic never do. The Chicago Manual of Style does not. For me, no spaces graphically conveys the interruption. You don't get to breath, dear reader, I am interjecting something important here.

I recall Bryan Garner saying in one of his talks on writing that newspapers did away with the serial comma to save column inches more than any other reason. So I've been curious to see newspapers, such as the Times, put spaces around the em dash, thus creating column inches. I also have a sneaking suspicion that some online publishers are starting to use en dashes instead of em dashes. I often think, "No way, that's not the width of an M."
Thursday May 6th 2010, 9:02 AM
Comment by: Regna P.
I like this article, it really puts some light on the proper use of a dash. A dash of anything quite often brings the right flavor to one's interest.
Thursday May 6th 2010, 9:25 AM
Comment by: Gena W.
Regarding the space before and after an em dash, I point out that the Microsoft Word software automatically replaces typed double hyphens with an em dash--as long as you do not place a space before and after the typed hyphens. (It performs a similar function to create an en dash; space-hypen-space automatically replaces with an en.) I concur with an earlier comment: the lack of space around an em dash visually connotes an urgency and tight linkage between the connected throughts.

I have my suspicions that the ems in the article above are ens, typographically speaking. If I were to read these in any other context, because of the spacing I would suspect that the author doesn't know the difference. "No spacing" protects the author's reputation!
Thursday May 6th 2010, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Mary Ellen V. (Saginaw, MI)
I've never worried about spacing when using a dash--which I do frequently--perhaps because of the Microsoft function mentioned above. I'm afraid my use of dashes is rather random--sometimes it replaces a period or semicolon; sometimes parentheses and/or a comma (as in the first sentence above); and sometimes ellipses...perhaps because it's only two strokes instead of three--who knows? Clearly I've never considered the idea that what follows a dash should be particularly important--perhaps I'll have to change my ways! ...and reduce my reliance on "perhaps."
Thursday May 6th 2010, 10:08 AM
Comment by: adaletheactor (louisville, KY)
you're absolutely the two best looking people on the net!!! i will read the article, in full, but just wanted you to know that . . .
Thursday May 6th 2010, 10:49 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)
I use em dashes all the time — and appreciated your fine article. In some places I use them instead of parentheses.

The typeface used in this site really does make these look like en-dashes, as Gina W. suggests above. In fact, it assigns the same length to both: — – The first is an em, the second an en. They look the same length to me)

BTW, one of the best reasons for setting em-dashes off by spaces is because typesetting programs and word processing systems won't always (or perhaps ever) insert line breaks at an em-dash, forcing an onerous final task on a copy-editor of cleaning up by hand the mess left behind by improperly broken lines.

The Mac is great because you can create em dashes at will by simply holding down Alt-Shift and pressing the dash key. (If you don't hold the Shift key, you create an en-dash.)
Thursday May 6th 2010, 11:22 AM
Comment by: Kathryn D.
Don H.:
Please explain how you inserted an em dash in your comments. I don't know how to do that on this website or any other. I also have trouble doing so in email, and thus had to resort to the old typewriter relic, --.

Ctrl. Alt - as in Word doesn't work here.

Thursday May 6th 2010, 11:41 AM
Comment by: Julie N. (Alameda, CA)
Wow! Thanks for the explanation. I always use this dash, but didn't know it was grammatically correct. I just knew I needed punctuation to make my point.
Thursday May 6th 2010, 12:30 PM
Comment by: Julia R.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Adale O., can you see us blushing from here? Thank you. The funny thing is that we've dragged our feet about getting "proper" head shots taken and thus have been reduced to using that "glam" shot, which was taken by the very gifted Boston-area photographer Josh Pickering. Believe me, I, for one, look nothing like that when I'm sitting at my computer clackety-clacking away (which is most of the time)! More responses to comments soon ...
Thursday May 6th 2010, 1:31 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)
I don't know how PC users insert em-dashes, Anonymous.... If you are using Word you can use the Insert menu to insert any character, including em-dashes. But I don't know how you would do so if you are typing in a text block like this one — except for the quick and dirty solution of copy-and-paste.

BTW, I noticed that when I posted my comment above, the en and em dashes actually changed lengths. (Strange!)
Thursday May 6th 2010, 1:52 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
If you want to insert an em-dash in the comments, you can also use the HTML code: — (Basic HTML coding is supported in the comments.)
Thursday May 6th 2010, 3:46 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Word for Windows automatically converts two hyphens to an em dash, but only if you omit spaces before and after the hyphens, thus: "What an anticlimax--or so one might have thought." Although you don't see it here, in Word for PC those hyphens are magically transformed to a single em dash.

If you insert spaces before and after -- you'll get an en dash.
Thursday May 6th 2010, 6:04 PM
Comment by: Caren B.
Simply smashing article about dashing!
Thursday May 6th 2010, 11:52 PM
Comment by: Kristian B. (Baltimore, MD)
It is not alt + shift + hyphen, it is option + shift + hyphen, as there is no alt key on MAC keyboards. While it may not show up in the comment field on this site—they are using some sort of monospace font with no difference in em- or en-dash—it shows up on the website, and will work in any text-writing software or other program on the MAC (even twitter recognizes them!)

I've found that European practice tends to lean towards the spaces | — | and American typesetting typically omits them |—|.

Also, I believe the Chicago Manual of Style uses the em-dash without spaces, It is funny that we'd be directed to the CMOS for more information on the em-dash while the differing practices of the Associated Press Stylebook are offered up for use.
Friday May 7th 2010, 8:43 PM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
This may seem like a nonsensical proposal (given that custom governs use in these matters), but wouldn't it be better, in double-dash constructions, to leave a single space before the opening dash and a single space after the closing dash? For instance: "on the plates were the expected —Wiener schnitzel, apple pancakes— and the unexpected." The em dashes would thus follow the punctuation conventions associated with parentheses, that seem to work well for everyone. I know of at least one other language that uses em dashes in such a way.
Friday May 7th 2010, 8:56 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)
Great article. While I did know the difference between an en and an em dash, I didn't know about the spacing. I never used the spaces as described above. So, recently, I have tried to introduce a new twist into my style: I just use the ellipsis instead! It works! Try it, you'll like it!
Saturday May 8th 2010, 3:30 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
The first wild and crazy user of the em dash was Emily Dickenson. Or at least the first I know about. If people who think of her as a demure an timid 'poetess' only really read her stuff. Of course, as no no did in her lifetime, she was spared the machetes of critics.
Saturday May 8th 2010, 9:31 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)
Ah, Emily D was on the course at my high school! I can still recite "I'm a Nobody"! But I don't remember her dashes.

When I write, I do use both the dash and elipsis. But the latter is better for only some situations where the thought is maybe continuing beyond the actual words. It does mean that something is being left out, doesn't it? (We never were taught that one. I just learned about it for my own writing!)
Saturday May 8th 2010, 9:41 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)
I admit to not understanding this bit. Perhaps someone can explain.
That bit about Pope Innocent VII (also from "Charlatan") surely serves to bolster the writer's suggestion that the practice of "injecting small amounts of a young person's blood into an older person" was, by the early 1920s, old hat.
It's the interpretation I don't understand. I took the last bit of the sentence to mean that it worked for him, the Pope (although I'd hate to think it true!)

To me 'old hat' is something that has been done loads of times -- in that context...

And there! I've used the two hyphens for a dash instead of doing the html thingie!

Here! 'loads of times — in that context...'

I've tried it!
Saturday May 8th 2010, 1:11 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)
Thank you, Jane B...
You're right. Glad for the support!
Saturday May 22nd 2010, 7:05 PM
Comment by: Russell M. B. (Toronto Canada)
In my experience as an editor an em dash without spaces is known as a "stuck" dash and an em dash set off by spaces is known as an "unstuck" dash. (I think duels have been fought over which is preferable, but it always comes down to house style.)

The best writing advice I ever got about the use of dash was to think of it as like pepper: a moderate use spices up one's writing, but too much can be distracting.
Monday November 15th 2010, 10:27 AM
Comment by: Jacqueline M. (Ottawa Canada)
RE. Don's comment, "The M dash and N dash look the same to me". They look different to me.

There is another way to obtain the M dash — hold down Alt, then, using the numeric keyboard on the right (with the Num lock on), type 0151.

Using this system works also for letters with accents in other languages. Since I often write in French and sometimes in Spanish, I have made a vertical list of all the accented letters used in these two languages plus a few other symbols such as € (Alt + 0128), cut a strip and attached it to the right hand frame of my monitor. This takes a bit of time, but since I am using a standard (English) keyboard and am not familiar with either a Fench or Spanish keyboard, this works for me.
Monday November 15th 2010, 5:15 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)
After reading Ben Zimmer's tip above I just have to try it &mdash
it didn't work!?
Monday November 15th 2010, 5:34 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Roger: Looks like an em-dash to me! (Once again the code is ampersand-mdash-semicolon.)
Monday November 15th 2010, 10:32 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)
Thank you, Ben!
It did work &mdash once I posted it (without the semicolon, even).

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