Meet the Dashes, one of the most confusing families in English grammar. There’s Hyphen and his fraternal twin siblings, Em and En. (Sadly, they do not have any hit rap songs.) Though they all look very similar, En, Em, and Hyphen vary in length and function. The word geeks at Writer’s Relief had a chance to sit down and talk with this infamous bunch and get the facts about exactly what roles they play in sentences.
En, Em, And Hyphen: A Grammar Tips Tell-All
WR: Will you please introduce yourself and provide a little background info for our readers?
Hyphen: Well, my name is Hyphen, and I’d like to start by saying that I’m generally only known by my first name. You know, kind of like Madonna. No one says Hyphen Dash. It’s totally not cool. And though I’m the shortest member of my immediate family, I make up for it with my unique power to both join and separate words at the same time. In fact, I’m pretty famous in the compound adjective world. Impressive, right? Also, I sometimes hang out at the end of a line in the print world when words are too long to fit against the margin and have to be broken by syllables.
WR: That is quite a gift. Sorry about the “little” reference. Moving on, can you tell us what it is you do and why it’s important?
Hyphen: Certainly. My power lays—sorry, lies in the ability to impact the meaning of a sentence by forming compound adjectives.(That’s my brother Em stepping in to point out the difference between lie and lay. We’re not the only grammar family that causes confusion, you know.) But back to me: Here are some examples of my handiwork:
- Part-time teacher
- Cold-blooded killer
- High-speed chase
Sadly, I’m becoming a bit of a third wheel in the grammar world. Nowadays more and more words are joining up without my acting as a prim and proper matchmaker. They’re just slamming right into each other! A perfect example of this is the word “online.” But I assure you I’m still important! Here’s what can happen to a sentence when I’m left out:
The silent movie star gestured wildly and pointed behind Shannon’s head. (Why won’t the movie star speak? Who ever heard of a quiet celebrity? And is there something terrifying behind Shannon? A bear? The paparazzi?)
The silent-movie star gestured wildly and pointed behind Shannon’s head. (Ah, this person is in a silent movie! There is no sound, so the star is overacting on film to get the point across. Oh, and there is a bear behind Shannon’s head.)
Clearly, I am still not only necessary but important to English grammar.
And here’s something that has driven my family crazy for ages: Em, En, I, and our cousin twice-removed, Minus, are often used interchangeably because we look so much alike.
Yes, we may resemble each other, but it’s important to clarify that we have very diverse functions. Take a look at the family portrait below. I’ve enlarged it so you can see the similarities and differences. I’m on the very left. En and Minus are following in the middle in that order, and that’s Em on the far right. (And just an FYI: We don’t hang out with Minus very much; he’s into math. Yuck.)
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Here’s how to find me (Hyphen) and Minus on the keyboard. We are easier to access than both En and Em, who do not have their own specific keys. This in itself is also responsible for quite a bit of unnecessary confusion.
WR: Well, thank you for your time, Hyphen, and also for your efforts to clear up the Dash confusion. Let’s welcome En to the conversation and hear what she has to say about her role in the family of Dashes.
En: Thanks for having me, but I want to clear up something, right away. You might not notice in the portrait, but I am slightly wider and longer than Hyphen. No one seems to pay much attention to this, which is why I want to mention it. Most people believe I share a space on the keyboard with Hyphen and Minus. But this isn’t really accurate. It is true that I don’t have a dedicated key, and writers generally do not want to take the necessary steps to properly render me. So, I get lumped in with those two knuckleheads. Though there are a variety of ways to add dashes, one way to bring moi, En Dash, to the page is to do this:
Hold down the Alt key and type in the number 0150. Bingo! There I am. Very simple.
WR: We’re detecting a little pushback from you, En. Is this some sort of ongoing family feud?
En: Yeah, sorry. We Dashes have a contentious relationship at times. And to be honest, I’m just not that into common spaces. I represent ranges of things. You know, spans of numbers, dates, and time. I’m also good with reporting scores and results of contests or polls. Most often I replace the words “to” and “through.” But I’m going to tell you right now, I don’t like to be used with the words “from” and “between.” I mean, I will walk right out of that sentence if I see any sign of those two. You got that?
WR: We think so. Can you give us some examples of your work so we can have a better understanding?
En: Sure. No problem. The last thing I want to do is be labeled as the troublemaker of the family just because I stand my ground. So, here you go:
- The 2015–2016 yearbook has the best photographs of Sarah wearing a top hat.
- You will be quizzed on chapters 5–7.
- The next meeting of Dave’s book club is Monday, 10:00 a.m.–11:00 a.m.
- Hermine secretly served as president of the company from 2010 to 2015. (See how I stepped politely out of this sentence because of the word “from”? No love lost, baby.)
WR: Here’s a question we need to ask before we go any further. How did you and your brother Em get your unusual names?
En: There have been whispers that momma had a fling with a typographer back in the day, but I’m convinced this is just a rumor started by the Font family. Sure, as En Dash, I may be the width of a shapely letter N, back when typefaces were less uniform. And Em Dash could seem twice as wide, like a letter M. But please don’t call us N Dash or M Dash! We go by our proper names, En and Em.
WR: Okay, I think we got it. Thanks for the clarification. Last but not least, we have Em Dash. Em, can you tell us about yourself and explain your role in grammar?
Em Dash: Well, I think all the Dashes strongly resemble one another, and that’s why people confuse me with my slightly shorter sibling, En, and Hyphen, who is the shortest of us all. (Don’t repeat this. He’s very sensitive about it.) I feel that I’m the most versatile in the family, since I can take the place of a comma, a parenthesis, or a colon. By inserting myself in a sentence, I create a powerful break. Some writers think I am overused, so they tend to avoid me. This is because I am way more emphatic and often scare people off. Not to brag, but let me show you what I can do.
Look out, comma, here I come:
And yet, when the sofa was finally delivered, six months after it was ordered, Kaitlyn decided it was the wrong color.
And yet, when the sofa was finally delivered—six months after it was ordered—Kaitlyn decided it was the wrong color.
Stand back, parentheses; I’m on a mission. Though I’m considered less formal, I can be a bit intrusive. Here’s proof:
After discovering the moths (all 10 of them) in his closet, Jack decided to get rid of his collection of wool Teletubby sweaters.
After discovering the moths—all 10 of them in his closet—Jack decided to get rid of his collection of wool Teletubby sweaters.
And there is one time I actually get to be less formal: when I stand in for a colon. Take a look.
After months of rain, every street was flooded except for the one Erinn lives on: Lake Street.
After months of rain, every street was flooded except for the one Erinn lives on—Lake Street.
Now, all that being said, I, much like my sweet sister En, do not have a designated key. Sad but true. If you want to bring me to the page, you must do one of two things.
Hold down the Alt key and type the number 0151. Bam! There I am.
Use the super-secret way. What’s the super-secret way, you ask? It’s this:
Type your word.
Hit the Hyphen key two times consecutively right after.
Type your next word and hit the space bar. Boom! That’s it. Done.
Please note: You must hit the space bar to see me. No space bar—no Em Dash.
WR: There you have it. The Dashes, uncensored. We hope this clears up a few things regarding this very confusing family, who we learned vary in size but not in strength. They are each very important to sentence structure and meaning. Knowing the Dashes will not only make you a better writer—it will make you a better reader. If you’d like more grammar tips, check out the articles below. And don’t forget to take advantage of our free Grammar and Usage Tool Kit.
Grammar Tip: When To Use Less Vs. Fewer
Grammar Tip: When To Use Among Or Between
Question: Which do you use most often: Em, en, or hyphen?
I love your texts, and the manner of presentation. Guaranteed to hold the interest of the reader. I find most people are simply bored by any grammar, and I lose them if I use technical expressions like hanging qualifiers or transitive verbs! I am new to your site — I don’t know how I came across it: through Facebook, I think — and am curious as to your overall content. (Did you notice my use of Mr. Em? I have known that hyphen twins will give birth to an em since I first used IBM’s Selectric Typewriter Magnetic Tape Recording Machine in 1978, word processing’s precursor. If that doesn’t date me, nothing will!) I will be keeping an eye on you guys! Thanks for your help!
However – let me point out that your ens and ems are playing on the Chicago Manual of Style team. The New York Times uses an en where you might use an em. E.g. this battle of the dashes – whether justified or not – will never be resolved. PS. The NYT style is also the British style. I’m British-born, so it’s hard for me to use the en – it just looks wrong. But I make myself do it for anything I’m submitting.
Love your column. Thanks for the humorous presentation of grammar.
I have always used em dashes without a space on either side.
But I’ve recently seen examples of an Em Dash with spaces on either side.
Is this the new trend, or just bad grammar?
In checking 3 different style guides, the rule is to leave no space before or after the dash. So this is not a new trend.