Bloody Well Write

April 16, 2009

The en dash and em dash or How two goldfish came into — and quickly exited — my pre-wedding life

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love fish (as pets) and those who, uh, don’t really get it. The same might be said for dashes; some people love ’em like mad, and some people, uh, don’t really get ’em.

Me? I fall into opposite camps. I don’t really get the whole fish-as-pets thing. They’re sort of cool to watch for a while, but fish can’t snuggle. Fish can’t cheer you up by nuzzling your cheek when you’ve had a bad day. Fish can’t wake you up by walking up and down, up and down your legs.

On the other hand, I totally get dashes. I think they are fabulous. They clarify. They add visual interest. They inadvertently amuse by infuriating the designers you work with. They give your brain a tweak while you’re writing.

What’s the fuss? Heck, what’s the real story? (There is a story here, but I’ll get to the fish later.)

There are two kinds of dashes: en dashes and em dashes. (Hyphens are not really dashes and are thus relegated to a separate entry.) The em dash began as the length of a “typical” m and the en dash began as the length of a “typical” n. These length conventions are not necessarily followed in these days of a gazillion font styles. When using an em dash, though, almost always include a space on each side of the dash. (Attributions are exempt.)

The em dash is used to set off parenthetical statements. Although commas and parentheses can be used for the same function, the em dash is — by far — the most emphatic separator of the three. It can also indicate a sharp transition: The coyote must attempt to catch the roadrunner — but at what cost?
The em dash can also be used for a series within a phrase: His menu listed the pies — pumpkin, blueberry and mud — that he made weekly.

Use the em dash in attributions, without a space: Oh, I don’t think I’m a lot dumber than you think that I thought I was once. —Ben Stiller as White Goodman in “Dodgeball”

The en dash is used in ranges:
• 45–50 clowns
• 11:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
• Ages 2–3
• November–December 1967

The en dash is also used in relationships, including compound adjective situations. These usages, however, can depend on your level of comfort in deviating from AP Stylebook guidelines. AP does not recognize en dashes as valid. So in the following instances, a plain, ol’ hyphen will suffice, but the more adventurous writers (and designers) can use the en dash for a slightly more fine-tuned approach:

• KU beat Nebraska 76–39 (whoomp!)
• New York–London flight
• A 5–4 vote

As far as I know — and that’s not very far when a PC’s concerned — there are no shortcuts to create an en or em dash on a PC. Here’s how to create the dashes via computer longhand for both a PC and a Mac:

• Go to Insert in the program menu and open up Symbol.
• Highlight the appropriate dash located there.
• Click on Insert.

Macs do have shortcuts, so you don’t have to move your mouse around through various windows.
Here’s how to create the dashes on a Mac:

En: Option+hyphen
Em: Shift+option+hyphen

Gee, I almost feel as if I could pass for IT support sometimes. Lasts for about three seconds before my head starts to implode.

So — what’s my big fish story?

Well, I was working at another ad agency in town when I became engaged (to one of the agency IT guys — OK, you got me). Our co-workers threw us a shower, and one gal — the one we all fondly referred to as Martha Stewart because she was crazy-creative in all creative endeavors — gave us a pair of goldfish. She had already named them En Dash and Em Dash, in my honor as the agency editor-proofreader. Cool, funky gift, not to be forgotten.

En Dash and Em Dash

En Dash and Em Dash in better days

I took them home in their baggies and put them into a small bowl. The next morning, I thought it would be a good idea to give them some fresh water. Fresh water is good, right? Right, I thought. I went to work and came home. My roommate told me to look at the fish, because they were “hanging out” at the bottom of the bowl. Well, they couldn’t be dead, I thought, because dead means floating, right? Right.

I looked at the bowl. Those fish weren’t floating, that’s for sure. But they were sideways. At the bottom of the bowl. Not swimming. Just … sideways. Ugh. I had killed En Dash and Em Dash, in less than 24 hours.

Imagine my horror at finding out that you can’t just use tap water for fish. How the heck was I supposed to know that, the fish virgin that I was? I felt horrible. So burial was my responsibility for these two unlucky souls. I took them to my roommate’s bathroom and — whoosh — they were gone. Just couldn’t bring myself to flush them down my own toilet. Isn’t that nuts?

I never told our Martha Stewart friend. I couldn’t bare the embarrassment, frankly. Now, almost six years later, I’m hoping that, if and when she reads this entry, she can forgive me for being such a cad. SD, I’m sorry!

OK, that’s it for today. I’m going to go re-mourn the loss of the goldfish while listening to some em dash–free Arlo.

Happy trails!



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