Dash it all! A guide to ems, ens and hyphens

Why the shortest distance between sanity and madness is a trio of line segments.

Why the shortest distance between sanity and madness is a trio of line segments

Oh, has any mark ever been so wronged as the family of dashes? No! We use them and abuse them, poor darlings.

Here are the three dashes you need to meet:

1. The em dash (alt+cntrl+ num -)

The em is the mother of all dashes (except of course for the 2- and 3-em dash, which are used to “”censor”” names and profanity, but we rarely use those anymore). The em dash and other dashy symbols can be found in Word under insert–>symbol–>special characters tab if the keyboard shortcut doesn’t work for you. The em dash is so named because it is the length of the letter M on a standard typewriter; in typography, that length is called an em, just as an en dash below is named after the length of the letter N. If you are in a very big bind and don’t have an em dash handy, most people agree that using two hyphens is about the same length.

Em dashes are used for all sorts of things—usually to set things off in a dashing sort of way. Notice that a comma could be used just as correctly there, but the em dash gives the phrase that follows it a sense of immediacy. Em dashes can also set off asides in a way that differs slightly from parentheses—like so—before the sentence continues onward.

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