Editing for Grammarphobes: A Little Dash Here and There


Although there are several kinds of dashes, each differing in length, the most common are the em dash and the en dash, named so because of what size they were back in the typesetting days. Em dash is as long as an “m”; en dash takes up the same amount of space as an “n.” 

Here are a few common ways they are used.

Em dashes denote a sudden break in thought that causes an abrupt change in sentence structure, according to The Chicago Manual of Style. 

“Will Jay Cutler — can he — complete the passes necessary to beat the Packers on Sunday?” 

They also can be used in dialogue when the speech of one character is interrupted by another. 

“I’m not sure,” he answered cautiously. “I think he also needs —”

“Needs what?” she interrupted impatiently. “Of course he can lead the Bears to victory!”

Summarizing clauses preceded by collective main subjects need em dashes.

Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, and Earl Bennett — they are all good targets for Cutler’s passes.

The Chicago Manual of Style also states “a defining or enumerating complementary element that is added to or inserted in a sentence may be set off by em dashes.” It also may be set off by commas, enclosed in parentheses or introduced by a colon.

This NFC Championship game—the first between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers since 1941—promises to be a showdown for the ages.

I hope the Chicago defense—led by Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers and Tommie Harris—crushes the Packer offense.

En dashes are half the length of an em dash and longer than a hyphen, The Chicago Manual of Style notes.

Em dash : —
En dash: –
Hyphen: ‐

They are used to connect related dates, times or reference numbers.


winter of 1978–79

pp. 7–14

But never, from pp. 7–14. That phrase should be written as from pages 7 to 14.

Coming Up Next 

Don’t miss this week’s Flash Fiction Fridays featuring Sharon Cupp Pennington.

P.S. Go Bears!


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