Thursday, April 4, 2013

GrammatiCats: Dashes

Have you ever typed a dash ( – ) into your word-processing program, only to have it spontaneously Pokévolve into a super-dash ( — ) as soon as you hit the space bar to move on?

Why would it do that?  Did the original dash feel inadequate?  Is it compensating for something?  Are there deeper-seated self-esteem issues at work here?

Maybe it's time to dish on the dash.

Pinkie Rating: 4

First of all, dashes actually do come in multiple flavors.  Let's round up some dash-shaped kitties and take a look at two of the more common types.  

En Dash 

The shorter of the two, it's called an "en dash" because it's traditionally the same length as the letter "n".  We use it all the time!

In the above example, the en dash serves as a sort of shorthand for "and."  Similarly:

Spanish–American artists
Chinese–Russian border
The Glass–Steagall Act
Father–son quality time

We also use en dashes to show a range of values (often numbers).

In these cases, we tend to read the en dash as "to."

The Packers beat the Steelers, 35–21.
The 3:30 Tucson–Albuquerque flight
The $75,000–$85,000 tax bracket.
A successful day care–primary school transition*

*notice how the two things this dash connects, "day care" and "primary school," are formed from two words, which aren't hyphenated.  These are called open compounds, and an en dash is a good way to connect them.

In short, en dashes are generally used to show ranges, connections, and relationships between items. 

Em Dash

If you're thinking that maybe this is called an em dash because it's the width of an "m" character, you are on the trolley!  It's bigger, and it's usually used to connect bigger elements - phrases and whole sentences, rather than individual words and numbers.

In this example, the em dash moves us from general information to something more specific: the second item is a paraphrasing, summary, or definition of the first one.  Notice too how that second item wouldn't be able to stand on its own.  Em dashes should not join two complete sentences.  You lazy kids today, always slapping your sentences together with chewing gum and em dashes.  Pull up your pants, get off my lawn, and use a conjunction or a semi-colon!

I tell you what you can do, though: you can also use em dashes the same way you would use a matched pair of commas or parentheses.

You see how the information between the dashes is
1. deletable (we could cut it out and have a complete, sensible sentence)
2. place-sensitive (it's got to sit right next to its launch-point in the main sentence)
and 3. a separate, sort of off-topic remark.

I abuse the hell out of em dashes for exactly this purpose.  Why stop to have a complete, coherent thought when you can stuff a second one inside the first, like some kind of magnificent grammatical turducken?

Lastly, a word about spaces and substitution.  Used as above, em dashes generally don't have a space on either side (because goodness knows they're taking up enough real estate as it is!)  You may be in the habit of using or seeing other people use " – " (en dash set off by spaces) instead of "—" (em dash, no spaces).  That totally works, as long as you do it consistently.  As near as I can tell, it's a pop/soda/Coke thing: different regions have different practices; the important thing is that you don't go bananas with it.  Like delicious fizzy sugar-juice, these jumbo dashes are best served in moderation.

Oh, and if you were wondering: no, the en dash isn't a hyphen.  Don't get depressed: stick around for H and we'll talk about it!

Further reading:

The Punctuation Guide - En Dash
The Punctuation Guide - Em Dash

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1.  Firefly, courtesy of Jarret O.
2.  Firefly (again!)
3.  Polo, courtesy of Jarret O. (does this guy take great cat-snaps or what?!)
4.  Smudge, courtesy of Dr. C.

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. This is why I joined the A-Z challenge. Not to learn about grammar (because I'm already great at it!), but to meet people who write funny/clever blog posts. I'm looking forward to what you have on offer tomorrow :)

    1. That is so nice of you to say so, Rebeccah. I think that is one of the highest compliments a writer can get: if your listener already knows or doesn't care about your subject and can STILL enjoy what you have to say, you are doing something right!

  2. Great piece :) I fear I abuse the Em Dash, though... and likely not correctly.

    I was glad you addressed the spacing, but I am still unsure. Perhaps the people using spaces were using En Dashes and I just couldn't tell?

    If you notice, in some of my postings I use spacing with the Em Dash. Any rulings on that? Or does it also fall under Coke/soda/pop thing?

    Ahhhh... the dreaded Hyphen is coming... dun Dun DUN!

    Jak at The Cryton Chronicles & Dreams in the Shade of Ink

    1. Don't worry about it! As Wikipedia says: "In running text, various dash conventions are employed: an em dash—like so—or a spaced em dash – like so — or a spaced en dash – like so – can be seen in contemporary publications." (I can't render the dash lengths properly in this comment box, but you can click over to the original.)

      So basically, there is not a single Mandate of Heaven out there - there's only more and less common practices in various parts of the world.

      The only thing I've seen consistently is the spaces: if you're going to have spaces, they really should be on both sides of the dash. Some of us (including me) have a tendency to glue the dash right onto the preceding word, but leave a space before the next one.

      Other than that, my personal recommendation is to take a bath, smell a rose, write a good story, and not lose sleep over this thing!

  3. Great lesson, one I will definitely remember! :-)

    1. Thanks, Josie - but don't lose sleep over it; the world is full of bigger and more important things, as you well know!

  4. Awesome post.

    I don't know what happened, but Word stopped turning my short dashes into long dashes and I have no idea how to fix it.

    1. Ooh! What version of word do you have? I've got 2007, and if you follow this tutorial, you should be able to turn those suckers back on.

      Because this is the 21st century, and we shouldn't have to tediously alt-code dashes our dashes in one at a tedious time - we have SkyNet to do it for us!

  5. I'm cracking up. This is great. I'm all over that em-dash-turducken thing, too! I love to stuff a thought into another thought!

    1. Haha, thanks! Do it! Let's figure out how to get even more in there, so we can make the sentence equivalent of a turbaconducken!

  6. I'm going to start using it...I currently over use other punctuation that might appreciate a break.
    Not knowing where to find it on my keyboard I went to the Mac forum where the em dash was being discussed and learned which keys to press and now look out! [option/al + shift + -]

    Thanks...I'm liking your A-Z posts; so much so I'm following you now!

    1. Wow, thanks for the follow, Jenny - I feel like I should buy you a corsage now!

      Good trick, by the way - I didn't even know there was a secret Mac code for these things! Way to live the small but significant dash-coding dream!

  7. This is so helpful-- punctuation AND cats? Did I do it right?

    1. You got it! Big thought, em-dash, smaller/clarifying thought! BAM!

      Just make sure that whatever spacing you have is consistent - if you're going to have a space after your dash, you should generally put one in before it too. Because if there's one thing we've learned from all this, it's that words are like babies, and will throw a fit if one gets something the other one doesn't.

      Also: I freaking love Hello Kitty. You are obviously a person of class, taste, and distinction, and I am so honored that the two of you would visit my blog!

  8. I'll never look at an N-dash [<--] the same way again ;-D

    1. Haha, N-deed! Personally, I'm just amazed at how many reams of real and virtual paper are devoted to quibbling over these things. And now we can quibble with the best of them!