Hyphens, Ellipses and Dashes…Oh my! Part 3 — “eM” dashes

by M. Richard Eley

In this part of the series, we’ll take a look at the often misused and misunderstood “eM” dash, also known as the long dash. As with the eN dash, the eM dash is named because the length of the dash is…hah, hah, surprise, not the width of an “M” but the height of a character in the current font size. If you are using 12 point type, an eM is equal to 12 points. Although, like many other terms, the definition is an oft-argued point, and some claim the eM dash is the width of an “M” character. The truth is: it doesn’t really matter what your definition is. All that matters is how to properly use our friend the eM dash.

In the past (typewriter days) an eM dash was emulated by a double-hyphen as “–“. This is still required by many manuscript submission guidelines as an eM dash placeholder, as special characters are not allowed in many standardized manuscript formats. In many fonts, it’s easy to confuse a hyphen for an eN dash or eM dash, so we still use the double-hyphen to represent eM dashes. And that way, editors and typesetters know our intentions.

In usage, the eM dash can replace commas, parentheses, and colons:

  1. Generally used without spaces—like so—except in AP style.
  2.  On the other hand — in AP style — it is used with spaces around it.
  3. It can also come at the end of a phrase to set off the next section for emphasis—if necessary.
  4. Used for quote attributions:  “Never mistake motion for action.”—Ernest Hemingway.
  5. A single eM dash may replace both a comma and a coordinating conjunction:

                        “I’m sorry—I think we are out of today’s soup.”  (Replaces “, but”)

Many writers confuse an eM dash with an ellipsis (three dots.) A single eM dash occurs at the end of a curtailed section of dialog that is interrupted, or at the beginning of the section when it is continued. When used in a phrase’s interior for dialog momentarily interrupted by action or thought, it requires a closing eM dash. If used to show interruption, the eM dash is always followed by action, or interjecting dialog from a secondary character.

Take a look at the following example scene excerpt:

                        “I don’t love you anymore”—in truth, she never had—”and I’m leaving.”

                        John set down his glass. “I think we should—”

                        “You think too much,” Sherrie said.

                        “—talk about it.”

                        “I’m done talking,” she said.

                        “If you’d let me finish,” John said, ” you might just—”

                        A tremendous explosion sent the front door rocketing inward.

Breaking it down, here’s the usage of the eM dashes:

                        “I don’t love you anymore”—in truth, she never had—”and I’m leaving.”  (Interior breaks to interject some 3rd-person narration.)

                        John set down his glass. “I think we should—” (John is interrupted.)

                        “You think too much,” Sherrie said.   (Her follow-up dialog. See note below.)

                        “—talk about it. ” (John’s resumed dialog. Additional tags (“he said”) are optional.)

                        “I’m done talking,” she said. (Incidental dialog.)

                        “If you’d let me finish,” John said, ” you might just—”  (John is interrupted again.)

                        A tremendous explosion sent the front door rocketing inward.  (Follow-up action.)

Note: When using the eM dash properly, as in the example, there is no need to tag the follow-up dialog/action with “she interrupted,”  “the explosion cut him off,” or “she interjected.” The reader should be able intuit this from the structure and the use of the eM dash.

Other applications include double-eM-dashes, which indicate missing portions of words. (In some fonts, multiple eM dashes sometimes appear as a continuous line.)

            “Mrs. L—— would not reveal her source.”

            “The treasure map’s words were faded and worn: Walk t—— to the h—— and ——g. “

And if an entire word is missing, either two or three eM dashes can be used, but remain consistent throughout the document with the count:

            “The undercover witness, Mr. ———, was shot last week.”

If you are using MS Word, a quick shortcut for the eM dash is to hold down both ALT and CTRL keys, and then press the Minus key on the numeric keypad. On Macs, try OPT-SHIFT-HYPHEN. Using HTML codes, you can usually hold down a PC’s ALT key and type 8212 or 0151 to produce an eM dash—give it a try.

Next time we’ll explore the Ellipsis…see you then!

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