Word Nerd: Dashes

As promised / threatened in my last Word Nerd post a couple of weeks ago, I’m going to talk about en- and em-dashes. I suspect this may put a few of you to sleep, but then again, if you weren’t interested, you wouldn’t be here, so … yeah, never mind. Sleepy Toria is sleepy. I don’t need to make sense in my intros. Pickles.

So! Dashes. They’re kind of awesome. I like using them and fussing over which type of dash should go where. It’s one of those topics that makes people give me the “I’m creeped out by how much you care about this” look when I start talking about it. You probably know how to use them already; judging by the number of instances in which I see en-dashes where there should be em-dashes and vice versa, however, some people aren’t getting it, so hopefully this will clear a few things up.

I’m going to start with em-dashes because they’re the more common of the two. You see them everywhere in books, and you’d probably glance right over them, were it not for the fact that they make you slow your reading. I think of them as a faster, slightly more hyper version of an ellipsis, which is the name for those three consecutive dots which usually means that you’re supposed to trail off or omit something (“…”). They cause an intentional break in what you’re reading because in most cases, whatever comes after it is often meant to be separate, yet still related, to whatever came before it (e.g. “That was something that he could never tell his son — or anyone else, for that matter.”). In other cases, it’s a way to quickly jump abruptly from one thought to another without having to end the sentence (e.g. “Oh, that was such a good mov— crud, I left my bag in the theatre!”).

In that last example, I also demonstrated that em-dashes are used to show the interruption of a word, which brings me to a slight detour in topic. This is a minor, niggling point, but a lot of typographers waffle over whether to include spaces before and after em-dashes. Many people think that including the spaces creates too much white space, too much of an abrupt stop, to a body of text. I think that the spaces are necessary, especially when taking that last example into account. If you don’t leave spaces, there is no way to tell (without actively thinking about it) if the word before the dash is whole or if it’s been ‘interrupted’. If it has been interrupted, I remove the space from between the word and the dash, just as there wouldn’t be a gap between one word and its interrupter if the word was spoken aloud.

It’s more common than not to see em-dashes in pairs, especially in literature, likely in a form similar to this: “People don’t seem to pay dashes much mind — stop looking at me like that, it’s true — and they really ought to, because they can make text sound more like realistic speech.” When you read that, I bet you that you mentally paused when your eyes moved over those dashes. That is their purpose. I don’t know about you, but I can’t keep the stream of text that’s going through my mind from being punctuated when I see a dash unless I’m deliberately concentrating on ignoring them. I did that once as an experiment, by the way, and whatever book I was reading at the time was surprisingly more boring than it ordinarily would have been, just because of the lack of tonal changes in key sections.

Speaking of, that’s another interesting thing that em-dashes do: they can bring a separate tone to the sentence in which they are used. The first and third segments of the example above were in an informative, declarative tone, whereas the second segment was much more casual and perhaps a little standoffish. This is something that happens naturally when we speak: we come to a quick halt in whatever we’re saying to add in something else that’s only sort of related, and then we carry on with our original thought. It is important that this occurs in text as well because, as I said a moment ago, reading text that is monotone can be extremely boring and draining.

In comparison to their versatile brother-in-law, the en-dash is a much simpler creature. They don’t often serve a purpose in recreational reading, but instead are found quite frequently in technical and/or informative writing. You see them most often when describing a range of something, usually dollar figures or time-spans. It’s quite common, for example, for someone to write something like “9am–8pm” for store hours, or for insurance brokers to write something like “$20,000–$50,000”. You can sometimes see travel itineraries written with the origin / destination information like “Ottawa–Vancouver”, but this is used much less than the two previous examples. En-dashes don’t create as much of a break in what you’re reading because of their slight difference in size, but they still help your mind to connect the text before and aft.

Their only other common use is as a bullet point. Hyphens are typically used for this aim if you aren’t familiar with how to use the dots or squares that word processors typically enter in for you, which is fine. En-dashes make much better bullets, though, because of their length (hee). Hyphens, being the short, stubby little things that they are, don’t grab your attention in a body of text quite as easily as an en-dash does. Look at the following example, if you will.

– Pick up dry-cleaning
– Wash the car
– Pick Sophie up from volleyball practice

– Pick up dry-cleaning
– Wash the car
– Pick Sophie up from volleyball practice

The longer bullet points provide a bit of a buffer from the margin of the page, making each bulleted item stand out clearly.

That seems to sum up dashes, in my estimation. Hopefully someone somewhere has taken something away from this. I welcome any comments, thoughts, questions, etc., as that’s the only way I’ll ever know if I’m hitting the mark on how to write this column. Thanks for reading this all the way through, it means a lot. Much nerd-love!

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  1. Kevin
    Posted September 22, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink


    … and more than a little frightening. 🙂

    • Toria
      Posted September 22, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      Thanks, I think. 😛

  2. Tam
    Posted June 18, 2013 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just come across your Word Nerd column and I’m loving it! Keep them coming.

    • Toria Spencer
      Posted June 19, 2013 at 5:35 am | Permalink

      I’m glad you’ve been enjoying them! Unfortunately the Geekin’ Out crew has dissolved, for all intents and purposes, so there won’t be further updates in the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still enjoy the current posts!

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