Tuesday, October 18, 2011

En Dashes, Em Dashes, & Hyphens: What's the Difference?

The Em Dash

Last week we tackled the en dash, explaining what it looks like and what it's used for. Today, we're going to look at the em dash. And, when I talk about loving the dash, this is the one I'm talking about!

What it's called: em dash
What it looks like: — (the length of a typewriter's m)
What it's for:

  • To set off clauses and phrases, in a similar fashion as commas and parentheses
    • He loved her—or so she thought.
    • He loved her—he told her so everyday—and she would marry him no matter the cost.
    • He loved everything about her—looks, brains, and heart—and couldn't wait to marry her.
  • To set off a subject or subjects from its pronoun sentence
    • Apples and pears—those are the only fruit she likes.
    • Yarn, dryer sheets, and shoe laces—such are the items my cat has tried to eat.
  • To indicate a sudden break in the flow of the main sentence
    • Can they—would they dare—choose her as the next president?
    • "Let's go—oh, I don't know—to the beach!" she pleaded.
  • To set of clauses and phrases that have punctuation in them
    • I just finished my last final—hurray!—and am now going to celebrate in style.
    • Larry—do you know him?—is coming over for dinner.

Shortcuts on your keyboard for the em dash

  • Mac: Shift + Option + Dash
  • PC: Alt + 0151
Since an em dash can be used in a similar way as can commas and parentheses, an obvious question would be, "When should I use commas or parentheses or em dashes?" Good question! I will answer that in a later post.

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