From the Editor’s Eye
The 10 Most Common Errors Made by Writers
(And How to Fix Them)
The seventh of a ten-part series.
#4. Dash It All! Part B: Em Dash—The Separator
The em dash serves an entirely different function than the hyphen and en dash, which I described in the previous blog. Where the hyphen and en dash are used to join text, the em dash is used to separate text. It can be used in place of commas (or parentheses) to enhance readability—or for emphasis—by setting off a word or phrase; it is used in pairs, unless the word or phrase being set off is at the end of a sentence.
- Readability: Polly knew “store” meant liquor store—not the grocery store—but she recited the grocery list anyway.
- Emphasis: Most people who use ellipses in e-mail overdo it—a lot.
- The em dash may be used at the end of a quotation in monologue/dialogue to indicate an abrupt stop or interruption: “Oh my god, you’re—”
- The em dash is also used to indicate quotation attribution, as in the Grammar Girl example below.
Where is the em dash on the standard keyboard? As with the en dash, it’s not there. In a draft manuscript, you may use double hyphens [ — ] to indicate an em dash (a hold-over from typewriter days), and place spaces on either side, or use the actual em dash [—], no spaces on either side. Both styles are OK in a draft manuscript (as opposed to a published work), but you should be consistent. You can replace the double hyphens with a bona fide em dash later.
Don’t put a space between an em dash and the adjacent words.
—Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl
Grammar Girl notwithstanding, newspaper style (depending on the newspaper) may call for spaces before and after the em dash. Either way, be consistent throughout your manuscript. But for heaven’s sake, DO NOT leave out a space before an em dash, while inserting a space after the dash.
- incorrect: Most people who use ellipses in e-mail overdo it— a lot.
- correct, book style: Most people who use ellipses in e-mail overdo it—a lot.
- correct, newspaper style: Most people who use ellipses in e-mail overdo it — a lot.
When writing material for a webpage, I sometimes follow the newspaper style and put spaces before and after the em dash. That’s because it’s easier to read on low-resolution screens.
How do I insert an em dash?
I know, it’s a pain in the butt. But if you want to look like a professional, then act like a professional, stop whining and just do it. Here are three options:
- In MS Word: select Insert/Symbol (yes, it’s cumbersome).
- Insert the double hyphen as a temporary placeholder; later, use Find and Replace to find every instance of a double hyphen and replace it with the em dash symbol.
- Create a macro to search and replace an entire manuscript with one click.
Tip: Microsoft Word allows you to set up a series of keystrokes to create a different result, and that becomes automatic as you type. For example, I have Word set up so that when I type two hyphens in a row, Word inserts the em dash symbol for me. (See Resources below for a link to instructions on how to set this up.)
[A word of advice: Do not use MS Word to create your final document for publication. I recommend using a desktop publisher, such as InDesign or Scribus (shareware knock-off); these programs are better suited for layout and formatting for publication, and for fixing those punctuation nigglies.]
But, you ask, how do I style the em dash when I’m online? This creates an even greater challenge for those who want to be punctuationally correct. In many instances, the platform is dumbed down and won’t allow you to insert a true dash, so your best option is to use the double hyphen (with spaces before and after).
That’s what I do, for example, when commenting on Facebook or other social media sites—except Twitter, where, to save a character, I sometimes use a single hyphen separated by spaces on both sides (even though it grates on my nerves).
Remember, when substituting a hyphen for an em dash, the function is for separation, not joining. Therefore, use spaces before and after. Otherwise, it looks as if you are creating a new compound word. Or as my daddy used to say, “Clear as mud.” You’re creating confusion, not clarity.
If I have some control over the formatting, such as when building a webpage, I insert the HTML code, or, in a WordPress blog, I insert it as a special character, the same as with MS Word. (In WordPress, you may find that the double hyphen will be replaced with a dash, whether you want it to or not.)
Lena Dunham Let Down
Please! DO NOT do what Lena Dunham (or her assistant) did in a recent book promo:
Hello! I have made a chapbook- an essay on diary keeping and excerpts from my most absurd & secret 19 year old journal- to benefit the incredible @girlswritenow.
I have seen this styling a lot lately. Probably from the mistaken belief that (a) because this a hyphen (in this context it’s not; it’s being used as an em dash), and (2) the hyphen must be attached to the preceding character, followed by a space. Both assumptions are wrong. In fact, a hyphen is never followed by a space (other than the exception I noted in the previous blog); a hyphen used for hyphenation is followed by a line break, not a space. A hyphen is a joiner, not a separator.
I also see this styling with greater frequency:
Hello! I have made a chapbook-an essay on diary keeping and excerpts from my most absurd & secret 19 year old journal-to benefit the incredible @girlswritenow.
This always stops me, and I have to re-read the sentence to try to make sense of it. In this instance, the mark is connecting chapbook and an, and journal and to, rather than separating them. Connected words are read contiguously, without any pause; for example, rock-and-roll. In which case the connected words should be able to stand alone as chapbook-an (which is nonsense) and journal-to which might have a meaning in some other context.
At the very least the sentence should be styled with a space before and after the mark:
Hello! I have made a chapbook – an essay on diary keeping and excerpts from my most absurd & secret 19 year old journal – to benefit the incredible @girlswritenow.
It would be even better styled like this:
Hello! I have made a chapbook — an essay on diary keeping and excerpts from my most absurd & secret 19 year old journal — to benefit the incredible @girlswritenow.
Also note the missing hyphens that should have been used to join the compound modifier 19-year-old.
The upshot: In a promo piece going out to millions of people, Lena Dunham should have done it professionally:
Hello! I have made a chapbook—an essay on diary keeping and excerpts from my most absurd & secret 19-year-old journal—to benefit the incredible @girlswritenow.
Remember our goal: clarity, not confusion.
I can only hope that Lena Dunham’s chapbook explains the proper use of the hyphen and dashes.
In this context, I will not comment on texting—the Wild West of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and “leet-speak” (look it up). Heaven help us.
References & Resources:
#10 They’re, Their Now: Contractions & Homophonic Convergence
#9. Commagain? Oxford Comma, Comma Splice & Dialogue Punchuating Bag
#8. Word Contortion: Homophonic Trip-ups
#7. Three Dots and Out: Give Your Ellipsis Elbow Room
#6. A Tense Moment: Word Context, Past & Present
#5. Dash It All! Part A: Hyphen and En Dash
Still to come:
#3. Pronounflagration: Pronoun Profusion, Confusion, Contusion
#2. Apostrophic Calamity: Apostrophe vs. Dumb Quotes
#1. Verbal Abuse: Lie Down with Lay & Related Verb Warps
Extra: My Language Pet Peeves