Let me start by doing a little recap regarding the three symbols that look very similar to each other. There’s the hyphen (which I covered in a previous blog), the en dash, and the em dash (the last two of which I will be focusing on here).
Note: while there are rules for using the hyphen, there is no official rule regarding the use of spaces prior to and after the en dash or em dash. It’s typically up to the writer and what he or she prefers using. There are some exceptions to the spacing though. Below I’ll show what’s commonly used.
Hyphens, or the minus symbol (-), are used to join two or more words together to create a compound word.
Here’s an example:
“The word is pronounced as al-fa-bet.”
This next example is one I used in my hyphens blog. It’s a great example because, without the hyphen, the word could mean two different things.
For example: “You need to resign.”
When you forgo the hyphen, you’re left with the word resign. What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear or see this word? Resign. Perhaps, it’s someone losing their job? Now look at this next example:
“You need to re-sign.”
Can you figure out where the issue could be when using this word? With the added hyphen, we now have the word re-sign, which means to sign something, again. Resign and re-sign, although spelled the same way are pronounced differently and have different meanings. Depending on what you, the writer, want to use, be sure if the word needs a hyphen. Even if you think your readers will know what you mean, “You need to resign that document,” there will also be those who may end up confused upon seeing this word without the hyphen.
Moving on, where’s that exception to the spacing rule that I had mentioned earlier?
Oh, here it is:
“The battles took place during the nineteenth- and twentieth- century.”
This hyphen is referred to as the hanging hyphen. As the name suggests, the hyphen ends up hanging off the end of the word, so there’s only the space after the hyphen.
Here’s a page with additional help regarding hyphens: http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/hyphen.html
The next dash…
The en dash (–) is the length of the letter N which makes it easy to remember. The most common use of the en dash is the separation of values or numbers. Think of it as an en dash having a relationship with the word to. So, if you’re dealing with numbers, try reading them out loud. If you end up saying the word to as in “blank to blank times,” more than likely, you’ll be able to replace the word with an en dash.
For example: “There’s going to be four to ten people at the gathering.”
“There’s going to be four–ten people at the gathering.” See what I did there?
Or this example: “For your homework, you need to read pages 407–421.”
Depending on the text font and size, it may help the reader to better understand what is being written if spaces are involved with the en dash.
“There’s going to be four–ten people at the gathering.”
“There’s going to be four – ten people at the gather.”
See what I mean?
Well, that’s it. Sorry, en dash, but your job isn’t that important.
Here’s a page with additional help regarding the en dash: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/en-dash/
In my typical writing, I’ve never used an em dash. I do come across them all the time when I read or edit though. Thankfully, incorporating an em dash into your writing is pretty easy.
The em dash or long dash (—) is the length of the letter M, supposedly. With symbols matching specific letters, it makes it easy to remember which one is which when comparing the hyphen, en dash, and em dash. The em dash can cover a variety of punctuation marks in writing such as the comma, colon, and parenthesis. Its purpose is to include that additional information or add emphasis to the text. Makes sense?
Take these examples:
“I wonder when we’re leaving—wait, maybe we’re not.” (Drastic turn for emphasis)
“Schooling is based on the three R’s—reading, writing, and arithmetic.” (Listing)
The em dash is commonly used in dialogue. I recently edited a manuscript in which the author was a big fan of the em dash. While I had a basic understanding of this punctuation mark, I wanted to make sure the writer as well as myself—the editor—was using it correctly.
The em dash can be used in three different ways.
- It can interrupt dialogue by cutting a sentence off: “Stop doing that—“
2. It can cut a word off: “Stop doing tha—”
3. It can cut a sentence or word off and include a dialogue tag: “Stop doing that”— she screamed in his direction” or “Stop doing tha”— she screamed in his direction.”
However you use it, just remember that there is no followup punctuation besides the em dash. That’s it. No periods necessary.
Like with many of the punctuational symbols, the em dash is used in dialogue to help make a certain word(s) stand out, provide an action, or give emphasis to.
“Why won’t you“—her mother arches a brow while looking down at her—“this isn’t fair!“
Here’s a basic breakdown of this example.
Let me start by saying that this one line, hopefully, conveys that there are two people involved—the mother and her daughter.
- It starts with some dialogue—the daughter attempts to ask her mother a question. Since she gets cut off by her mother with just a look and doesn’t get the entire question out, there’s no need to include the typical ending punctuation mark. It would be included though had she finished her question.
- The em dash is brought in (I prefer no spacing) and then a dialogue tag. Since the dialogue is picked back up after the tag, another em dash is required. This leaves the dialogue tag enclosed within the em dashes.
- The dialogue itself is all enclosed within two sets of quotation marks.
Here’s where it can get tricky. If you realize based on the example above and the two more to follow, the dialogue begins and is cut off, for whatever reason, by an action. The tricky part involves the placement of the em dash.
If the dialogue or narrative is cut off by an outside action, the em dash goes outside of the quotation marks.
If you still aren’t sure, here are a couple more:
“But what about“—the loud noise distracted her as she turned to the stairs to see the body come tumbling down.
The dialogue is cut off by an action.
Or “Just shut up!”—A sudden pain exploded across her cheek as her sister smacked her.
Obviously, the action sister is smacking the talking sister across the face.
Now, if the dialogue or narrative is cut off by another character’s dialogue, the em dash goes inside of the quotation marks.
So we need some examples of that, right?
How about this?
“Wait! Didn’t you just—”
“Oh, give it a rest already!” His father shook his head walking back outside.
This example shows the first character dialogue before it is cut off by his father’s/second character’s dialogue. Notice the em dash is inside the quotation marks.
Or “I don’t know if I c—” Stacy began to say before she was so rudely cut off.
“Of course, you can! Don’t worry about it!” Brian clapped her on the back as a sign of camaraderie.
That’s it. With a little practice, the rules of the dash game are easy to remember.
Here’s a page with some more helpful tips regarding the em dash: https://paznancie.wordpress.com/dialogue-cut-off-mid-sentence-how-to
I hope you have found this blog useful. If you have any questions, comments, jokes, or funnies, please feel free to contact me.
Thanks for reading!