Dashes: The Long and the Short of Them


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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

Here He Is, Your Komodo Dragon


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One of my favorite movies is “The Freshman,” a 1990 comedy starring Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando in which Brando parodies his Vito Corleone character in “The Godfather.” The plot is complex, but it involves a college student who becomes entangled with the Mafia and is “pressured” (as only the Mafia can pressure) into capturing and serving up endangered animals—including a Komodo dragon!—at parties costing hundreds of thousands of dollars a head. (Don’t worry—the Komodo dragon survives unscathed.)

Late in the film during one such party, longtime Miss America pageant host Bert Parks sings a version of “There She Is” as the dragon is revealed to the would-be diners. It goes like this: “There he is…your Komodo dragon; there he is, one of eight. With so many species, he took the town by storm with his continental taste and charm….” I love this scene. Something about it—it makes me laugh every time I see it. If you haven’t seen “The Freshman,” look it up. It’s awesome.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my second-favorite punctuation mark, the semicolon; today I thought I’d write about my favorite—the em dash. Steve once said he could immediately tell if an article had been written by me simply by noting the presence or lack of em dashes. While I’d rather have my writing identified by my singular voice, if it has to be synonymous with a punctuation mark, let it be the em dash. After all, like me, it’s versatile, useful, and has a flair for the dramatic.

The em dash (—), appropriately, is used to provide emphasis. It can stand in place of the comma, parenthesis, or colon, depending upon the circumstances.

Let’s start with the colon.
The em dash can be used in place of a colon when you want to emphasize the end of your sentence. It adds a certain flair, or drama, that a colon lacks. Consider these two sentences:

  1. When Steve heard that the new “Star Wars” movie was going to be released the same day as “Hateful Eight,” he knew which movie he’d pick: “Star Wars.”
  2. When Steve heard that the new “Star Wars” movie was going to be released the same day as “Hateful Eight,” he knew which movie he’d pick—“Star Wars.”

The colon alerts you that more information is coming. The dash, on the other hand, emphasizes that information. It’s a stronger statement. No way is Steve going to see the new Quentin Tarantino movie when the fate of the galaxy is at stake!

On to commas and parentheses.
A parenthetical phrase (one that’s not essential to the framing sentence) can be set off by commas, parentheses, or em dashes. Deciding which to use depends upon how much emphasis you wish to place on the interrupting content. Commas ascribe the least amount of emphasis and—as you can probably intuit—em dashes ascribe the most. Regardless of what punctuation you use, to be an appropriate parenthetical phrase, you must be able to remove the content in between the punctuation marks with no detriment to the rest of the sentence. Consider:

  • After watching the “Star Wars” movies, all six of them, I’m not looking forward to a seventh.
  • After watching the “Star Wars” movies (all six of them) I’m not looking forward to a seventh.
  • After watching the “Star Wars” movies—all six of them—I’m not looking forward to a seventh.

You can see my irritation grow with each sentence, and the only thing that’s changed is the punctuation. (Note, also, that you can remove the verbiage between the punctuation, and the sentence still makes sense.)

Endnote
So what does this have to do with the Komodo dragon? Because, as I started to write this, I thought of that scene in “The Freshman” and, suddenly, “There She Is” was in my head. Only, in my excitement to write about my favorite mark, I modified it: “There it is, my beloved em dash. There it is, so ornate.” It reminded me of the Komodo dragon song, and the juxtaposition was too good not to share.

Am I the only one who does this—replaces well-known song lyrics with new lyrics to suit a certain situation? What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And, if you’ve seen “The Freshman,” what did you think?

Word of the Week: Juxtaposition 
Song of the Week: The Freshman, by The Verve Pipe