Kicking the em dash habit

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Posted: 
May 28, 2018
Written by: Line Lalande

Bold. Dramatic. Assertive. Powerful. These are just some of the words used to describe my favourite punctuation mark: the em dash!

The unspaced em dash

I'm a long-time fan of unspaced em dashes to separate the elements of a sentence or title in English. In fact, I delight in peppering my texts with these long dashes to create suspense or highlight an interruption. And I'm not alone: most Canadian and American style guides support my preference. But the unspaced em dash, entrenched though it is in North America, has a rival that's been gaining ground.

The spaced en dash

Consider the following sentences:

  • "Yogourt" or "yogurt"—which is right?
  • "Yogourt" or "yogurt" – which is right?

In the first sentence, I used an unspaced em dash (—) to offset the question. In the second one, I used a spaced en dash ( – ). (And in case you were wondering which dash was right, the answer is … both!) Personally, I find that the first sentence has more "oomph" than the second one. The difference between the two sentences is subtle, but it's there. For that reason, I'm not the biggest fan of spaced en dashes.

But I'm learning to live with them. Why? Because they're popping up everywhere, and they're endorsed by some pretty credible sources.

Support for the spaced en dash

Some major British publishing houses (including Cambridge University Press and Penguin) use spaced en dashes. And many writers and graphic designers on this side of the Atlantic also prefer spaced en dashes for readability and aesthetics, finding them less distracting than unspaced em dashes.

Moreover, in his influential work The Elements of Typographic Style, Canadian typographer Robert Bringhurst also advocates spaced en dashes. He states that the em dash is too long in many modern fonts and claims that it's passé:

The em dash is the nineteenth-century standard, still prescribed in many editorial style books, but the em dash is too long for use with the best text faces. Like the oversized space between sentences, it belongs to the padded and corseted aesthetic of Victorian typography.

So, move over, em dash, and make way for your leaner and airier cousin. With time, I may even learn to like the spaced en dash. Perhaps it's an acquired taste …

What about you? Which dash would we find in your writing? Let us know in the comments section!

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The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Line Lalande

Line Lalande

Line Lalande initially worked in the exciting world of marketing before taking the leap into translation. After graduating from the University of Ottawa, she worked as a translator and an editor for several years. She joined the Portal team in 2009, bringing her strong writing skills and fun personality with her. Although she has moved on, she continues to keep up with the Portal from her home base: retirement! Line enjoys outdoor activities, crossword puzzles, family time and her cats.

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I agree that the use of the unspaced em dash is preferable—more logical, more dramatic! Of course, as a veteran of CP and the hoary CP Style Guide, I am probably set in my ways.

Hi, Sharleen,
I think it’s completely natural to stay loyal to a particular style guide. Consistency is a virtue! :)

The en dash would be found in my writing. However, I would like to thank you Line for clarifying which is which. That has always baffled me and made me concerned I was using the wrong one. Now I am clear and confident that I am using the correct one.

Interesting article. I have understood (maybe incorrectly) that the hyphen is used when the words are connected to create a single word. Example: Socio-economic. The em dash to connect or highlight two different words or phrases. Example 1 in the article. And the en dash when dates, numbers and nouns of equal value need to be joined.
However, given the examples in the article above, I would prefer the en dash over the em dash because the second part of the space between the words and the dash cause the reader to define the two parts of the sentence separately. The first part "Yogourt" or "yogurt" needs to be analysed and "which is right?" needs to be answered.

Hi, Randy,

You’re right about the uses of the hyphen, en dash and em dash. For more information, see our article entitled "Hyphens and Dashes—The Long and the Short of It" (http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tpv2guides/guides/pep/index-eng.html?la...).

As for the spaced en dash, it does seem to create a more visible separation between the two parts of the sentence. And you’re in good company in preferring it, as the quotation from Robert Bringhurst shows!

I think for people working in the federal public service that em dashes should be used in accordance with "The Canadian Style". Leave the confusion over spaced or unspaced em dashes to the private sector.
I also wish you would post an article on the correct use of commas and en dashes.
So many people are unaware of their different uses, and many people, out of laziness or ignorance, put commas where en dashes should be used.

Hi Dennis,

We agree that readers who happen to be federal government employees should follow The Canadian Style for print documents and the Canada.ca Content Style Guide (which does not allow the use of any dashes) for content published online. Our many other readers can feel free to use either spaced en dashes or unspaced em dashes, in print or online, as they wish. :)

You’re right that commas should not be used as a substitute for en dashes. But dashes can be used effectively in place of commas in cases where a more emphatic break is called for. Details can be found in the following articles:

• en dash (http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/wrtps-srch?lang=eng&srchtxt=en+dash&i=1...)
• em dash (http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tpv2guides/guides/wrtps/index-eng.html?...)

I've stumbled across this spaced en dash before, and am having trouble coming to terms with it. However, your Bringhurst quote is almost enough to convince me! Thanks for the informative and entertaining post.

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