Main page content
Kicking the em dash habit
From: Translation Bureau
On this page
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!
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.
Leave a comment
Please consult the “Comments and interaction” section on the Canada.ca Terms and conditions page before adding your comment. The Language Portal of Canada reviews comments before they’re posted. We reserve the right to edit, refuse or remove any question or comment that violates these commenting guidelines.
By submitting a comment, you permanently waive your moral rights, which means that you give the Government of Canada permission to use, reproduce, edit and share your comment royalty-free, in whole or in part, in any manner it chooses. You also confirm that nothing in your comment infringes third party rights (for example, the use of a text from a third party without his or her permission).
Comments are displayed in the language they were submitted.