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Mere’s Grammar Corner—En and em dashes
Written by admin — 5th May 2015

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Meredith is our resident grammar nerd and we love her. ‘Can you proofread this article please, Mere?’ we ask. ‘Mere, is this the proper use of a semicolon?’ we whisper. ‘Enjoying your nerd book, Mere?’ we jeer.

This is the first of what we hope will be a regular feature in which Mere explores a small corner of the grammar and punctuation universe. Over to you, Mere!

Dear Mere,
What the hell are en and em dashes?
Yours sincerely,
Rod Stewart

En and em dashes (or ‘rules’) are those horizontal lines you see in text that are longer than hyphens. An em dash (—) is traditionally the length of an upper-case M, while an en dash (–) is roughly the length of a lower-case n. We call them textual dashes—that is, dashes we use as sentence punctuation. (Hyphens, on the other hand, are mainly used as word punctuation—for example, in compound adjectives such as ‘world-famous cherry pie’.)

But what good are textual dashes? Well, a pair of them—such as this pair here—sets apart an explanation or idea from the main clause; it creates a stronger separation than a pair of commas but a weaker one than a pair of parentheses (aka these brackets). Just don’t use more than one pair in a single sentence. Some sentences—such as this one—use too many—it’s very confusing.

A single dash is more mellow than a colon when you’re introducing further explanation—for example, like this. It can add drama or emphasis—seriously! And it’s great for showing interruptions:

‘What can I get—’
‘Two more pieces of this incredible pie!’

A single dash can also show an abrupt change in direction—but try not to overuse it. As recommended in The Elements of Style: ‘Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.’

By now you’ve noticed I’m using the longest dash—the em—and there are no spaces around any of them. Well, you can use either unspaced or spaced em or en dashes as textual dashes. Check it out:

These dashes—these two here—are unspaced em dashes.
These dashes – these two here – are spaced en dashes.

It’s a style thing. Slate uses unspaced em dashes; The Guardian prefers spaced ens. BuzzFeed follows the AP Stylebook (aka ‘the journalist’s bible’) and rolls with spaced ems.

What might persuade you to use unspaced em dashes is the fact that the en dash has another role: it’s also a linking dash. It has a number of subtle uses, but most commonly we use it to mean ‘to’ in spans of time, dates and range (10am–5pm, 9–15 April, 20–30 people). It can be confusing to work out what job each en dash is doing if there is a whole bunch of them in a row.

So, think about it—you too might enjoy employing two dashes to do different, specific things. All I’ll say is this: be consistent.

This piece can be found in print in the first printed issue of the Gaz, available now from our shop!