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What the—: A brief introduction to the em dash

My thought process when coming up with a name for my business went something like this:

  1. I need a snazzy name for my language-related business;
  2. The em dash is one of my favorite punctuation marks;
  3. If I’m nerdy enough to have favorite punctuation marks, why not name my business after one of ’em;
  4. Finally, my own name starts with an ‘M’, so naming my business after the em dash might arguably make more sense than naming it after, say, the en dash (we’ll get to that one).

The responses I get when I direct people to my website, give them my email address or hand them my business card fall roughly into three categories. There’s category #1, “‘Emdash’, does that mean anything?”, category #2, “You named your business Emdash! I love you,” and category #3, “Please stop shoving your new website in my face. I know it’s pretty. You’ve told me. You’ve shown me. Several times. Seriously, please just—”

As the number of category #1 responses admittedly outweighs the number of category #2 responses (no comment on the number of category #3 responses), here’s an introductory blog about dashes—specifically, the em dash.

Definitions and etymology

Shady Characters, the best book ever (judging by its cover).

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines a dash as “a horizontal stroke in writing or printing”. So far, so good. The em dash (—) is one of the two main dashes in contemporary written English, the other one being the shorter en dash (–). Both are named after the letters to which their widths correspond: That is, the em dash is usually roughly the width of the letter ‘M’ and the en dash is, well, you guessed it.

The ‘dash’ part, by the way, derives “from the verb ‘to dash,’ in the sense of striking violently”, according to Keith Houston in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks.

Usage and effect

Houston discusses three main functions of the em dash: censoring, disruption and emphasis. (Direct quotes are from Shady Characters unless stated otherwise.)

C——ing

Firstly, double em dashes can be used to censor “entire —— or portions of w——s”. This isn’t the most interesting use of the dash, but I’m mentioning it here because I really wanted to include this anecdote:

The use of the dash as a stand-in for various profanities was so common, in fact, that the word ‘dash’ became a mild epithet in its own right; by 1883 the cumbersomely named Lord Ronald Charles Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, a member of Parliament, historian, and sculptor, could write in his Reminiscences, ‘Who the Dash is this person whom none of us know? and what the Dash does he do here?’ The dash had transcended punctuation.

Let’s all start using “dash” as a euphemism.

—disruption

Secondly, the em dash can indicate aposiopesis, “an abrupt change or end to a thought or speech”, e.g., Seriously, please just—. In running text, a single em dash can link two sentences in an unexpected way, as stated and simultaneously demonstrated by Steven Pinker in The Sense of Style:

When the second sentence intentionally interrupts the flow of the discussion, requiring the reader to wake up, think twice, or snap out of it, a writer can use a dash—dashes can enliven writing, as long as they are used sparingly.

Pinker considers this “deliberate use of surprising transitions” to be “one of the hallmarks of lively prose”.

—emphasis—

Thirdly and lastly, dashes can be used to separate parenthetical information—information that’s not central to the message, like an explanation, an afterthought or an aside—from the rest of a sentence.

Interestingly, American English prefers parenthetical clauses to be set off by unspaced em dashes (see previous sentence), whereas British English prefers “a spaced endash – like this.” Either way, this use of the dash has “a pronounced foregrounding effect”, according to Hannay and Mackenzie in Effective Writing in English.

In conclusion

The dash, then, is one of the most versatile punctuation marks. The em dash, specifically, can be used to censor words, indicate broken-off words or phrases, purposely disrupt the flow of a text, and provide emphasis by isolating phrases. It can be used instead of various other punctuation marks, causing subtle shifts in meaning, style and/or effect, e.g.,

  • Periods
    a writer can use a dash. Dashes can enliven writing.
    a writer can use a dash—dashes can enliven writing.
  • Ellipses
    “Seriously, please just…”
    “Seriously, please just—”
  • Colons
    Both dashes are named after the letters to which their widths correspond: That is,
    Both dashes are named after the letters to which their widths correspond—that is, …
  • Semicolons
    the word ‘dash’ became a mild epithet in its own right; by 1883…
    the word ‘dash’ became a mild epithet in its own right—by 1883…
  • Parentheses
    Em dashes can be used to separate parenthetical information (information that’s not central to the message) from the rest of a sentence.
    Em dashes can be used to separate parenthetical information—information that’s not central to the message—from the rest of a sentence.

Clearly, there’s very little the em dash can’t do.

I’d love to claim that’s the deeper meaning of my business name, but truthfully, I just really like em dashes.

P.S. The em dash and the en dash aren’t the only dashes that exist or have ever existed in the English language. Houston also discusses the rare quotation dash (the big brother of the em dash, used to denote lines of dialogue), the even rarer figure dash (the little brother of the en dash, used to divide strings of numbers that don’t represent ranges), and several thrillingly named hybrids: the commash (,—), the reversed commash (—,), the colash (:—), the semi-colash (;—) and the stop-dash (.—). So, if you were still looking for a snazzy name for your own language-related business…

References and further reading

  1. Crystal, David (2015). Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation.
  2. Hannay, Mike. & Mackenzie, J. Lachlan (2009). Effective Writing in English.
  3. Houston, Keith (2014). Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks.
  4. Pinker, Steven (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

Comments (2)

  • Johan Remmerswaal

    May 3, 2017 at 2:50 PM

    :emdash)

    1. Maud

      May 25, 2017 at 12:38 PM

      :—)

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