Friday, October 15, 2010

The Dashes – En, Em and Hyphen

I am a big fan of the dash and use it frequently in my writing. For me, dashes just fit in well with the way my mind creates written sentences. But I was a bit stumped recently when someone asked me, when do you use an en dash and when do you use an em dash and why can’t you just use a hyphen? Hmmm – good questions. I basically knew the answers, but to be honest, I learned that my preference for using the en dash is technically incorrect – I should really be using the em dash. Drat.

In grammar, the dash can be used to interrupt the flow of a sentence and give a moment of pause before an important or dramatic statement. The dash introduces a related portion after a sentence and gives it more emphasis. The writer can use it to indicate to the reader there is about to be an abrupt change in tone or thought.

The dash functions in much the same manner as a colon, both introduce a related element after a sentence, but the dash is much less formal than a colon. A colon typically tells the reader more information is going to be added to the sentence they just read. The dash is the strongest method possible used to draw attention – it adds dramatic flair. Dashes can be used like commas or parentheses, but if there isn’t much of a payoff after the dash, it’s best to stick to a comma or parentheses.

Here are examples:

I’m going on vacation – to Paris!

I need a few things from the grocery for dinner tonight: peas, linguini and broccoli.

If you don’t mind, could you pick up the mail?

I ran a few errands (grocery, pharmacy and post office).

So, what is the difference between the en, the em and the hyphen and when are they used?

EN Dash ( – ) As long as the width of a capital typeset letter N. The en dash is used to indicate an inclusive range, such as between two numbers like time, money or dates.

EM Dash ( — ) As long as the width of a capital typeset letter M. The em dash is the one that is used in a sentence for emphasis.

Hyphen ( - ) Splits a word at the end of a line or joins compound words. The hyphen connects words and is never to be used in place of a dash.

The length of an en dash falls halfway between the length of a hyphen and length of an em dash. The length of the en and em dashes were originally based on traditional typesetting standards of the N and M, hence the names en and em, but that rule is no longer hard and fast with computer fonts.

There are two ways to format em dashes in a sentence and either way is acceptable. You can use a space or no space preceding and following the em dash, whichever you prefer, just be sure to stay consistent. And a good rule of thumb is to limit the use of em dashes to no more than two per paragraph.

While I’m glad to learn the correct way to use a dash in sentences, I will likely stick to my preference for using the shorter en dash – I just like the way it looks.

Now you’re a little smarter, Girlfriend — And so am I