Yesterday, while editing, I was chuckling at how diverse and strange my Google search history must be. My full-time job triggers lots of searches about food and plants, while my freelance work raises questions about everything from '90s bands to current U.S. medical crises. Just for fun, I took a look through my search history from 2014 and found some major categories (and representative screenshots thereof) into which most of my searches fell.
Fact Checks and Proper Names
Spelling and Terminology
Style and General Grammar
Lie vs. Lay
The next featured character in my personal mythology of punctuation is the powerful, the confident, the underappreciated em dash.
Em Dash is the hero who patiently awaits his moment of glory. He watches, ever alert, as Parentheses, Semicolon, and Period exhaust themselves leaping into action over and over. When floundering clauses start to drift away, when Exclamation Point, Colon, and Comma are too much or not enough, Em Dash straightens his immaculate eveningwear and walks with self-assured yet humble strides into the fray. The following situations are just some of the ones in which he truly shines.
An em dash can convey a professional, if somewhat brusque, greeting to any type of physical or digital missive. (Note that what appears in these examples may be two hyphens instead; see the end of this post for an explanation of that bit of tomfoolery.)
Good morning, Michelle--
I dropped a project off in your office…
If you’re sick of colons and commas, it can also provide a slightly different flavor when introducing a list or an idea.
I don’t know what I liked most—the movie, the previews, or the snacks.
Em Dash is unique in that he can cause an abrupt halt; he is more decisive than Ellipsis and sharper and more versatile than Period.
“Would you like some sup—” She broke off and stared. “What are you wearing?”
When em dashes are used to provide extra information within a sentence, parentheses can be used almost interchangeably (but they can make their contents seem less important than the rest of the sentence). Using an em dash keeps the elaborating information on the same level of importance.
The doctor—a pompous fool—somehow managed to concoct a miracle cure.
The true value of this story—what keeps scholars returning to it time and again—is what it says about the plight of the chronically ill.
Like a semicolon, an em dash can be used to connect two sentences.
Leave him alone—he’s busy!
I don’t know why I wanted a puppy—she destroys all the furniture.
Short, medium, long: hyphen, en dash, em dash.
Please note that an em dash is neither a hyphen nor an en dash.
The name “em dash” refers to the width of the letter “m” (which is wider than an “n,” hence the slight difference in length between the en dash and the em dash).
One should almost never use an en dash in writing; it’s used mostly with things like number ranges.
A hyphen is even shorter. Sometimes, depending on where people are typing, they’re forced to use two hyphens to indicate an em dash, because Em Dash is often considered a special character.
In Microsoft Word, when you type a word, two hyphens, and another word, the hyphens will turn into an em dash when you continue typing. Easy. When you type a word, a space, one hyphen, another space, and another word, the hyphen automatically turns into an en dash—not what we want!
Simply put, I love Em Dash. He is, well, dashing. (I also love puns.)
Here, Melody will ponder editing, grammar, punctuation, and the text she encounters in the world.