I was tempted to title this post “distinguishing the dashes” or “dashing through the typography of breaks”—keeping in tempo with themes of December.
A recent presentation by an editor caused me to revisit my post on when to use the ellipses or the dash in writing. My focus was on the em dash since its use is one beginning writers often confuse with ellipses in their writing, particularly with dialogue. Editor Jodie Renner states that she often finds “writers using ellipses (…) where they should use dashes, or hyphens instead of dashes, etc.”
The editor of the webinar, however, gave a definition for another dash, the en dash, which I had never heard, and which I believe is incorrect. Rather than repeat what could be mistaken, if not just plain wrong, information, I will discuss in this post the conventions of the various dashes.
A blog for that editorial bible The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) asserts that “there are three lengths of what are all more or less dashes: hyphen (-), en dash (–), and em dash (—).” They may look similar but they are not interchangeable. In fact, knowing the difference in typography distinguishes master designers from novices, and confusing their usage is considered by some to be “just as much of a punctuation error as using a question mark in place of a comma”(Strizver). I have a whole post on when to use the hyphen, which is the mark that connects two or more words that are linked; as the CMOS states these things “are intimately related, usually words that function together as a single concept or work together as a joint modifier (e.g., tie-in, toll-free call, two-thirds).” The hyphen is found on the keyboard to the right of the zero in the row near the top.
The second dash, the en dash, is between the hyphen and em dash in length—longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash. It is equivalent to the width of the keyboard’s capital letter “N.” Nancy Tuten points out that these distinctions were known chiefly by professional printers and typesetters until word processing programs enabled all writers to use these marks of punctuation. On computers, the en dash is formed by pressing the Ctrl+the Minus sign located on the numeric keypad.
The en dash means “through” or “to” and connects numbers and sometimes words in a range; for instance, it is commonly used with dates and numbers to indicate inclusive periods or sections: Chapters 3–6, May–December, 1984–1988. As Linda Ellis writes in her poem about the en dash, “what mattered most of all/ was the dash between those years” (“The Dash”). A fussy rule that CMOS bemoans is often ignored is the use of the en dash “to connect a prefix to a proper open compound,” such as “pre–World War II” — many people simply use a hyphen.
What is generally called the dash (—) is technically called the em-dash because in the days of typewriters, it was formed by typing two hyphens together which was equal to the width of a capital “M” on the keyboard. Though it got its name from the typewriter age, the em dash is easily created on the computer keyboard—the simplest method is to press Ctrl+Alt+the Minus sign. As for format rules, some guides put a space before and after an em dash (AP), while others use no spaces around em dashes (CMOS).
The em dash is used to emphasize a phrase or to indicate an interruption in speech versus the ellipsis, which indicates something is left out or the speech is trailing off versus. With the em dash, the pause or break is more dramatic.
Kate Mooney, who devoted a whole article to the em dash, calls this punctuation mark “emphatic, agile,” “adding emphasis to our convictions, alternately vexing and delighting readers.” She cites Mary Norris of The New Yorker who says that the em dash “can be substituted for almost any other mark of punctuation—the comma, the semicolon, the period, a pair of parentheses, the quotation mark, even a bullet point in the making of the list.” Mooney also references Martha Nell Smith of the University of Maryland who is an expert on Emily Dickinson. Smith says that Dickinson used the em dash to “highlight the ambiguity of the written word.”
These three types of dashes are easily confused, even by editors, but if you familiarize yourself with the different marks and uses, you can then make your own stylistic decisions about when and how you will use the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash.