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

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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Hyphens, Ellipses and Dashes…Oh my! Part 2 – “eN” dashes

Hyphens, Ellipses and Dashes…Oh my! Part 2 – “eN” dashes

By M. Richard Eley

 In my previous article, we explored the wacky life of hyphens. As we found out, a hyphen’s main use is to break or join multiple-word compound terms.

This time, we’ll look at the eN dash. The eN dash, like its brother the eM dash, is named for the letter length of the dash in the same font. An eN dash is supposed to be as long as an upper case N, but this can vary due to font design, character proportional spacing, and Web browsers. In any case, an eN dash will fall somewhere between a hyphen and the longer eM dash (explored in Part 3 of this series.)

An eN dash is a little-used symbol, mainly due to its specific purpose, which is to break up a range of numbers, contest results, or scores. Many folks aren’t even aware of the eN dash, and often use hyphens instead—so you will see variances as to where and how it is used. Even major publishers and publications will show variances in its use.

The eN dash should be used for number ranges, contest results, or scores. It looks like this: pages 14–20, 2010–2012, the Senate voted 68–32, Bears over Raiders 47–28.

Note: If a range is introduced with words like “from,” “between,” or “during” do not use any form of dash: “The years between 1967 and 1970 were exciting.”

It’s a one or the other rule—when dealing with numbers, either use an eN dash OR a range preposition. “The crates between 13–16 are the most valuable,” is incorrect because it uses both an eN dash and “between.”

Sometimes, even though the usage is correct, the sentence’s meaning becomes confusing. Take, for example: “Crates 13–16 are the most valuable.”

Does that mean we are talking about four crates: 13, 14, 15 and 16?

Does it mean only two crates, 14 and 15, which are the two crates between 13 and 16?

Or is 13–16 a lot number—with a dozen crates on a pallet #13–16?

I’ve seen this type of ambiguity show up more often than you’d imagine—even in science books, college textbooks, and technical manuals. If a tech manual says, “To disable unit, cut the wires to the terminals between 44 and 48,” does that include terminals 44 and 48? Do you think a bomb disposal technician might be wondering the same thing? Express the correct meaning in clear and certain phrasing.

Often when discussing a range of physical “things,” the sentence will read smoother and clearer if you forego eN dashes in favor of a preposition: “The book volumes #13 through #16 have the most useful data,” or “The contestants numbered between one and two hundred.”

Using a prepositional word looks better than “There were 180–220 people out there.” It’s easy to misconstrue “180–220” as an adjective modifier of “people” instead of a numeric range.

However, when identifying a pair of numbers, not a range, the eN dash is usually clearer and less verbose. “Last night the Bears beat the Raiders: 47–28” or “The vote for adjournment failed, 55–11.” In those examples, the reader is likely to understand from the context that we are discussing a comparison between two specific numbers, and not a range. An eN dash is the best choice for this use, unless your particular style is to craft the phrase in a more literal manner: “The vote failed: 55 were in favor, and 11 against.”

The important thing is to construct the sentence such that the meaning is unmistakable, no matter who reads it, or if it is used out of context or quoted.

If you follow a particular stylebook—and this is highly suggested—it might have a rule about eN dash verses hyphen use. It appears acceptable in most cases to use either an eN dash or a hyphen for compound adjectives before nouns: note the difference in “hyphen-separated” and “eNdash–separated.”

But hyphens placed words slightly closer together than eN dashes do, and hyphens are considered the standard for compounding words.

In Microsoft Word: hold down the CTRL key then press the Minus key on the numeric keypad to create an eN dash. You must use the numeric keypad’s Minus key, not the Hyphen key near the Backspace key on the top row.

Using HTML/ALT codes, you can also hold down a PC’s ALT key and type 8211 or 0150 on the keypad. (8211 is the HTML code, 0150 is the original ASCII code.)

*Note: all codes must be typed on a regular numeric keypad, so they probably won’t work using a laptop’s embedded keypad.*

On Macs, try OPT-HYPHEN to create an eN dash.


In the next part of this series, we’ll look at eM dashes. Until then, write on!

Hyphens, Ellipses, and Dashes… Oh my! – Part 1: Hyphens

Hyphens, Ellipses, and Dashes… Oh my! – Part 1: Hyphens

By M. Richard Eley

Part 1 — Hyphens

Back in the halcyon days of yore–and typewriters–there was only one choice for a “dash”: the hyphen key.

We all know what happened next: computers ruined our lives with their digital pomposity, smug 102-key keyboards, and self-righteous spell checking.

In the electronic age, we have five different choices for “dash” symbols, and all of them look similar. Each is unique, though, and has a specific use. In this and future articles we’ll explore a few punctuation symbols and their proper place in writing.

A hyphen’s main use is to break or join multiple-word compound terms. The ancient Greek root for hyphen roughly means “into one” or “under one.” It blends two concepts into one idea. Use hyphens with no spaces on either side for creating fragments such as: eye-opener, free-for-all, twenty-five.

Nowadays, some words aren’t hyphenated which were in the past, such as “now-a-days,” for example.

Only use multiple hyphens when meanings would be unclear without them: “a twenty-five-year-old man” is fine with its three hyphens, as compared to “a twenty-five-year old man” which turns a young man into a senior citizen. “Dyed-in-the-wool democrat” tells us what kind of democrat the person is. “Dyed in the wool democrat” may possibly mean we colored something that was stuck inside a woolen democrat. If a phrase acts as a single modifier/concept for a noun, then it’s a likely candidate for multiple hyphens.

Avoid using hyphens to compound “-ly” words, unless they are construed as a single concept and contained within a longer sequence of words. This doesn’t happen often in modern writing except to make a point: “The movie’s rarely-well-directed scenes were disappointing.”

Technically not a dash, the hyphen is much shorter than the other “true” dashes–though many texts make no distinction between hyphens and dashes. It’s something of a gray area, like many other “rules” of grammar and spelling.

To produce a hyphen on most keyboards and operating systems, press either the Hyphen key on the top row (usually located by the Zero key,) or press the Hyphen key on the numeric keypad. Sometimes that’s called the Minus or Subtraction key, but any of those keys produce the same hyphen.

The true minus sign, surprisingly enough, is not produced by the numeric keypad’s key. On a PC running Windows, you can usually hold down the ALT key and type 65293 on the numeric keypad to produce a Unicode minus sign. (Alt-65291 is a Unicode plus sign.)

On a Mac, it’s tricky to get to this symbol and the method depends on your version of OS, but if you can invoke the special characters menu, you’ll see a number of symbols that are available. (Command-Option-T or Command-Option-Space, or from the edit tab, look for “special characters.”)

A minus looks like this: 7 + 2 - 8 = 1. You know it’s a true minus sign, not a hyphen, because it has a little spacing built in, and it’s the same width as the plus sign. Note the visual difference if the smaller hyphen is improperly used for a minus sign: 9-8=1. If a minus sign is misused for compounded words, they’ll look a bit strange: “the blood-red tulips,” verses “the blood-red tulips.”

Note: in the above examples, differences between characters may be hard to discern due to different web browsers, system settings and fonts.

So there you go, all you ever wanted to know about hyphens. Maybe more than you wanted to know, but knowledge is power. In my next article, we’ll look into the mysterious “eN dash.”