Question Mark ConceptA couple of weeks ago, in the September Yellow Highlighter Class, Carol asked a question about hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes that I thought was worth posting here as I’m sure that others share Carol’s questions about how to properly use these punctuation marks. Though hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes are all used to connect things what they connect and how they connect them is subtly different from punctuation mark to punctuation mark…so here is a bit of a rundown.

Hyphens which are one dash join two words to form a hyphenated word that creates a single concept. For example middle-aged, three-year-old, ex-boyfriend, mother-in-law.

En dashes connect things that are connected by distance…though you can generally think of this as a range…for example pages 72-96 or June-August 2015 or October-November workshop.

Em dashes are used in several ways. They can be used in in place of parentheses, colons or commas.

To use them like parenthesis or an aside you would insert an em dash and then break away from the main part of the sentence–kind of like I am doing here. Or…My mother has a rhea, two deer, 19 cats, 6 dogs, and 3 horses–she is a definite animal lover. Used this way the em dash breaks the sentence in a way that allows the part after the dash to trail off a bit–which is a bit softer than if you broke the sentence with a complete stop–like with a period…and is not quite as formal as using parenthesis. :)

Another example would be: After discovering the errors in the bill (all 99 of them) the customer called to complain to customer service. To use em dashes you would do it like this: After discovering the errors in the bill–all 99 of them–the customer called to complain to customer service.

Em dashes can be used in place of a colon when you want to emphasize that part of your sentence that would follow the colon if you punctuated with a colon instead of an em dash. For example: After months of research the reporter reached a conclusion–the CEO had lied.

Another use of em dashes is to substitute for something missing. On the small scale in words we use an apostrophe to substitute for missing letters…like in contractions…it’s, wouldn’t, couldn’t and so on. On the larger sentence scale we can use em dashes to stand in for missing words…especially when the missing words trail off at the end of the sentence. “I wasn’t trying to insinuate–” in this case what he/she wasn’t trying to insinuate is what is missing. Without the em dashes it could have read: “I wasn’t trying to insinuate that you wouldn’t know the truth if it hit you in the nose.”

As for typing em dashes there are multiple ways that are acceptable. This is something that would be covered in a publisher’s style sheet. If the publisher doesn’t have one or you are writing a manuscript you are intending to submit to more than one publisher you can simply choose one of the following ways and then be consistent.

Some use three hyphens with a space on each side of the dash (like — this). Some do the same thing with the three hyphens but remove the spaces (like—this). Some use two hyphens with a space on each side (like — this). Some use two hyphens with no spaces (like–this). Some even use a single hyphen with a space on each side (like – this).  Unless you’re working with a publisher’s style sheet my suggestion would be choose the style you like and be consistent with it. I personally prefer the look of the two hyphens with a space around it…but I often type it with the two hyphens and no spaces. I break my own rule and am not consistent–enough in following the rule.


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