Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ode to the Em Dash "—"

Oh dearest Em Dash
How I've used you so badly
Let me count the ways.

My beta readers can attest to how I've mangled the em dash. This "---" being a common offense. Good thing I don't get fined for crappy usage of punctuation!

So the em dash. Let's learn about his little guy.

The name "em" comes from the typographical unit of measurement in points, which used to be the width of a capital M. So in 12 point font, one em is 12 points wide. I knew they didn't name it after Aunty Em.


1. as a parenthetical thought.
Example: I slurped the hot chocolate—hot being the key word here—and cooked my taste buds to kingdom come.

2. at the end of an unfinished sentence because of an interruption.
Example: It appeared to be a nice kitty. I extended my finger into the open, mewling mouth—
"Stop right there! Them's poisonous kitties!"

3. instead of an ellipsis (...) to indicate an aposiopesis (no, not a disease) or when the speaker is too emotional to continue.
Example: "When I gave her the hot chocolate, I had no idea—"
Mom wept, overcome by her guilt. She knew she was responsible for her daughter's horrible taste in everything.

4. an abrupt change in thought, similar to using a colon or set of parentheses. Or, when a period is too strong, or a comma is too weak.
Example: No—I would tackle the poisonous kitties with my own two hands.

5. And for the most part, there is no space before or after the em dash.

And a final note on how to type the darn things. Instead of using two dashes, you can use the actual em dash from your symbol keyboard. Shortcuts are as follows:
For Mac users, the shift-option-hyphen is the fast way to make the em dash.
In the PC world, use Alt + 0151.
Also, you can do this: word--hit return then backspace, or word--word. The dashes will automatically turn into an em dash. Cool!

Em dash away now!


arlee bird said...

I am a big dash fan--I use them a lot. I probably misuse them frequently as well.

Janna Qualman said...

Thanks for such a great and close look at the em dash! I use it often, too. *sigh*

Thanks for coming by my blog. I really like yours, too!

Elana Johnson said...

Dude, I love the em-dash. I use it all the time. And my computer automatically formats it for me. Even better!!

Kat Harris said...

I love it. I'm an em dash fan, too.

I always space mine, though, because it's required where I work. If I had to keep track of two different ways my mind would spin, my ears would smoke and I'd need a padded room.

Lydia Kang said...

Hey Kat! Yes I read that there are some places, like the New York Time Manual of Style and Usage likes the spaces on either side of the em dash. I never knew I would know so much about a little, bitty line!

Anonymous said...

I also love the em-dash, but there are times when I'm unsure when/how to use it. Thanks for the info! :)

Anonymous said...

If I gave in to my whims, I'd use the em-dash everywhere. Unfortunately, it can be too much of a good thing, LOL!

Great post!

Anonymous said...

I am an em-dash abuser. It's good to know the rules so I can abuse it more plentily in the future! :D

Deb Salisbury said...

I use lots of em-dashes, then go back and take most of the out. Le sigh.

I've left you a little something on my Magic Seeker blog. :-)

Suzette Saxton said...

Learned something new today! Thank you!

Lydia Kang said...

You're all welcome! I learned too. Loving the opt-shift-dash. Using it probably more than I should ;)

Amparo Ortiz said...

Another em dash fan over here... This was a great post, Lydia!! Thanks for the tips!!

DL Hammons said...

I've bookmarked this post for future reference. A common abuser of the ellipsis...maybe now I'll actually use proper the punctuation.

Or not-- :)

Great post!