Look at this beautiful thing: —. It is very different from this: –. It is also quite different from this: -.

I rarely employ the services of the second dash in my above list, as I am not in the business of cutting headstones. The en dash, called that because it measures the width of the lower-case n, is seen most frequently between dates: 1968–2075. (Those dates are mine; I intend to stick around for a while longer.) In the popular bumper-sticker expression, “Life is what you do with the dash between the dates on your headstone,” the “dash” is specifically an en dash. “Life is what you do with the en dash, a punctuation mark you didn’t know the name of but see all the time,” does not make for quite as inspiring a bumper sticker.

The hyphen, the third dash in my list? Well, I am a veritable hyphen sprinkler sometimes, with my frequent yoking together of terms into my own single-use modifiers. (Like there.)

The em dash and I are (don’t tell Jen) frequent companions, however.

Amy Einsohn’s excellent reference, The Copyeditor’s Handbook, offers clear examples for the differences among the dashes. The three marks are sometimes used to combine and sometimes separate elements in a sentence. The em dash—so-called because it measures the width of a capital M—gives emphasis to an interrupter. Her example: “The one—and only—reason to proceed is to recoup the investments we have already made.” With the em dash, the “and only” in the above is delivered with a raised index finger.

Most interrupters are best delivered between parentheses, which play down any emphasis, incorporate the interrupter. Between parentheses, the interrupter is delivered as if with an open-hand, waving-away gesture.

(More often than not, I find that if I am inserting something in my writing between parentheses, I am revealing the order in which I have thought of something, and the parentheses are almost physically a place-holder. After editing, that thought is usually removed from inside a sentence, de-parenthetical-ized, and allowed to breathe on its own as a complete thought.)

Einsohn’s example for using parentheses is perfect, for her point: “Nizhny Novgorod (called Gorky in the Soviet era) is the third largest city in Russia.”

She refers to the en dash as a “quirky creature.” Indeed, the em dash performs as a fully ordained member of the punctuation frat- or sor-ority; it tells us that the writer considers the interrupter important and can aide the writer in pacing his or her stride through a sentence. And the hyphen’s uses are many. But the en dash does not even appear on a keyboard. (I visit a known en-dash provider, highlight and copy the desired dash, and then drop it in where I need it.)

The en dash is a sort-of enhanced hyphen in most of its functions except one: the dash between dates. (Really, it is the dash between any numbers in which one is not listing each number in order, like pages to be read: “Read pages 98–103 before the next class.”)

Einsohn reminds us that Strunk and White offer in The Elements of Style a possible, very specific everyday use for the en dash as a super-hyphen: “When the Chattanooga News and the Chattanooga Free Press merged, ‘someone introduced a hyphen into the merger, and the paper became The Chattanooga News-Free Press, which sounds as though the paper were news-free, or devoid of news.'” The book suggested the use of an en dash between News and Free. The paper used a hyphen throughout its incarnation as the News-Free Press; today it is the Chattanooga Times Free Press, a hyphen-free name that reflects the fact that it has had many different owners through its history. (To this day, the paper runs two separate editorial pages, one liberal and one conservative, which also reflects its ownership history.)

I do not know if the em dash holds me in as high a regard as I hold it; this may be a one-sided, unrequited and unrequitable affair. (My go-to image here is John Cusack holding a boombox aloft in the rain.) I respect it enough to never put spaces on either side of it, though.

I employ the em dash as a means of telling readers how to read my sentences—at what pace—which is something that, if I was a better writer, my sentences would be strong enough to reveal on their own. I’m still learning.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 21 asks, “We all have strange relationships with punctuation—do you overuse exclamation marks? Do you avoid semicolons like the plague? What type of punctuation could you never live without? Tell us all about your punctuation quirks!”

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  1. Lola · October 21, 2015

    Hey, over here! I have a really ignorant question and I have no shame. How do I get the en or em or M dash on the keyboard? Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · October 21, 2015

      It is said that WordPress, like Microsoft Word, automatically converts space hyphenhyphen space into an em dash. ( — )

      I have not made this work in WP as of yet (of course, it probably worked up above), so I literally go to a page in which there sits an em dash and copy and paste it into my document.

      I use the old editor and not the “beep-beep-boop” editor, and I use HTML in every paragraph. Thus, technically, I ought to use the HTML codes: you make an en dash with this code: “–” (minus the quotes) and an em dash with “—” (minus the quotes).

      Again, I do not even do this. I highlight, copy, and paste a dash into my typing and it works. And now that I have this column, I won’t have to search long to grab either type of dash for future uses.

      Not an ignorant question at all. And I don’t solve it in the most elegant way, either.

      Thank you for reading my work, Lola!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lola · October 22, 2015

        You copy and paste it? I’m shocked, I tell you, just plain shocked! 🙂 Thank you for your clear explanations. I appreciate

        Liked by 1 person

        • Anonymous · October 22, 2015

          Oops, my finger slipped! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. wscottling · October 21, 2015

    I use dashes all of the time (as you know) with little regard to what they’re called. Mostly, I use the em dash. However, I put spaces on either side because I think it’s more elegant that way, and I do what I want. ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · October 21, 2015

      😉 There are many arguments on either side of spaces on either side of the dash, and I don’t think there is a prevailing correct way.


  3. rogershipp · October 21, 2015

    I, too, am a dash person. Well written and a fun read!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Leigh W. Smith · October 21, 2015

    Unfortunately I—an ex-copyeditor here!—suffer from an overuse of em dashes. Oh, and exclamation points! Entertaining post, Mark (as usual). Dangit—and parentheses. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Gradmama2011 · October 21, 2015

    Hey Mark… this is the most interesting article I’ve read in ages. I had NO idea. I love dashes, both en and em, and since I am an old-school typist keyboarder I like to use two hypens — in succession — which then actually turns into an em dash on its own. That kind of makes me frown, in spite of its convenience, because I like to do the punctuation myself and it kind of hurts my feelings when the machine just takes over and, well…foists its punctuation preferences on me. I also like elipses a lot…I’m not really sure that is spelled right, but the machine doesn’t feel moved to correct it, so I’ll just go with it.
    Now spelling–that’s a different thing. My general rule of thumb is that I LIKE the automatic change in spelling IF I am wrong…but hey if I want a certain spelling then I go for it. And no auto-correcting! Back in the day when first (and only) drafts were hacked out on sheets of newsprint via an ancient Underwood typewriter, when we wanted a certain spelling to remain as typed we would insert a CQ over it. (I have no idea what that abbreviation stood for, except leave-this-alone-it-is-right for the benefit of well-meaning copy editors. )
    In my opinion punctuation like elipses/dots, hypent/em-en dashes and double-spaces between sentences add to the physical cosmetic appearance of a piece of writing. But I’m no Kate Turabian! OR Strunk and his partner either. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. lifelessons · October 21, 2015

    Okay, hyphen guy, can you explain why so many people use a space hyphen space in place of an em dash? http://judydykstrabrown.com/2014/06/29/unruly-punctuation/

    Liked by 1 person

  7. loisajay · October 22, 2015

    hyphens, dots, dashes and exclamations–boy, do these guys get overused by me!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. abodyofhope · October 23, 2015

    This was so much fun to read! I’m an editing nerd, so you had me when you called punctuation beautiful 😉
    Ever since blogging, I have begun to play with my punctuation, therein becoming lax… Now I will be em dashing more often with my index finger in the air!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dreamer of Dreams · October 24, 2015

    Loved your post!

    Liked by 1 person

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