Dashes: The Long and the Short of Them

The em dash (—) is my favorite punctuation mark. It’s just so versatile. It emphasizes. It separates. It interrupts. What more could you want from a punctuation mark?

Turns out, not everyone feels the way I do. A friend of mine recently suggested that we abandon the em dash in favor of the en dash (–) because “the em dash takes up too much space.”

It’s true. The em dash takes up more space, but sometimes you need that space. And it’s not as if the uses overlap. There are clear distinctions between the em dash and en dash. Here’s the long and the short of it.

The em dash
The em dash has a number of uses. The reason I love it so much—and you can look at any example of my writing and find evidence of this—is because it allows an additional thought to be added within an otherwise complete sentence. See what I did there? I provided an example smack dab in the middle of my explanation. Talk about economy of words.

It can also provide emphasis at the end of a sentence—like I’m doing right here. Finally, it serves as a substitute for interrupted dialogue. For example:

“I wasn’t trying to imply the em dash was unnecessary—”
“Yet you did.”

The en dash
En dashes have one main use: connecting items in a range. Here are a few examples:

  • The interview with Jim Martin is in the May–June issue of Pumpkin Grower magazine.
  • You can find it on pages 22–25.
  • It’s hard to believe he was the guitarist in Faith No More from 1983–1993.

But what about the hyphen?
It seems wrong, somehow, to omit the hyphen (-). However, it’s not really germane to this conversation, and it’s a complicated mark, deserving its own article. For now, let’s just acknowledge that it should never be used interchangeably with either the em dash or the en dash.

One more thing…
It occurred to me that some people may not know how to signify em and en dashes in Word. For the em dash, simply hold down the “Alt” key and type “0151.” For the en dash, hold down the “Alt” key, and type “0150.”

So how about you? Do you discern between em and en dashes? Why or why not? And how do you feel about the word “utilize”? Spoiler alert: I hate it.

See you next time!

Word of the Week: Germane
Song of the Week: 100 Yard Dash, by Raphael Saadiq


  1. vince selasky says

    Wow!! And to think I thought hyphens and dashes were the same thing ..
    I just got knowledge today!

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