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!


Where’s Your Notebook?

Where’s Your Notebook?

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.” -Will Self

There are plenty of resources who will tell you to carry a notebook, but why should you do it? What will it help you with? What can you learn from it?

What Good Is A Notebook?

Notebooks can serve many purposes for writers of all genres. A poet can jot down lines and images they want to use in their next poem. A novelist can write down observations about the world around them that can lend realism to their next work. A memoirist can write about events as they unfold and capture details that will breathe life into their work. The possibilities are endless for all types of writers to use notebooks.

Why Is A Notebook Better Than No Notebook?

If you don’t carry a notebook, you probably fit into one of two camps.

  1. You don’t write down your ideas and hope you remember them whenever you’re somewhere you can record them.
  2. You write ideas down on loose pieces of paper, napkins, or other temporary methods of recording.

If you’re in the first camp, you probably find yourself sitting down to write your first draft, lost in a million thoughts that slipped away. What was it that you saw yesterday that struck you? How did she phrase the quote you wanted to write a poem about? What was it that you were so convinced would be a good idea to write about? If you have a notebook, you can record all of this.

If you’re close to the second, you probably find yourself surrounded by the clutter of these scraps of paper with no way to organize or keep track of them. With a notebook, you have all of your thoughts and ideas saved and in chronological order from when you wrote them.

What Can I Use As A Notebook?

Just about anything.

If you have to have paper to put a pen to, go find yourself a notebook at any local store. Notebooks range from incredibly expensive leather-bound tomes to small spiral notebooks you can get at stores for a dollar. Pick whatever is right for you.

One thing I like to do is if someone goes on a trip and asks me if I want them to bring me anything, I ask them to bring me a notebook. Then my notebook is something different from what I could buy locally and it will remind me of the special person who got me the book.

Some people like to use their phones as notebooks and that’s a great idea. There are a lot of apps, such as Evernote, which can record all of your thoughts as well as to-do lists and other tasks that might end up in your notebook. This cuts down on purse or pocket contents and also provides all of the benefits of notebooks.

More On Notebooks

Check this video for more information on notebooks and see the notebooks I use for my writing.