Being a Better Writer Follow-up: Em-dash Addendum

Hello readers! Bit of a mid-week surprise here with a follow-up to Monday’s post, The Ellipses and the Em-Dash, Odd Forms of Punctuation. An interesting follow-up with a bit of history for you that may clear up a question some readers apparently were left with. I got a few comments on the post, split between here on the site and a reblog elsewhere, expressing questions about the en-dash. Nope, not the em-dash, but endash. Which I’ll admit I’d forgotten all about, as for me it was hardly ever used.

Turns out there’s a reason for that. With a few comments on the topic, I went digging, and found out why. And now, I pass it on to you, readers, as it will likely clear up some confusion experienced by some of you after reading Monday’s article.

See, there were a few people who contacted me to point out that they’d never heard of the em-dash being used the way I’d spoken of it, but rather the en-dash. Which, if you’ve not seen it, is just a slightly shorter em-dash. Think halfway between an em-dash and a hyphen. In the US, the only time we use the en-dash is for the dash between dates, like say 1947–1951.

In the US.

Yeah. I did some digging, and found something out I didn’t know before Tuesday morning. See, the em-dash and the en-dash? Both are dashes named for the size of the dash when they were a piece of movable type. One is the size of the letter N, the other the letter M.

Then there’s another bit. Both were dashes, just of different lengths, and so the places doing the printing (likely driven by space and cost factors, as a lot of conventions that became grammar rules came from that) had to choose which was appropriate.

In the United States, the em-dash was chosen to be the common piece, and the en-dash relegated to dates and a few case-specific uses.

In Britain, however, it was the other way around. That’s right, in Britain the en-dash was made the common piece, and the em-dash relegated to dates and specific uses.

Oh. Suddenly some confusion at my post makes a lot of sense. It’s another case where internationally, countries differ in their usage of grammar. Like grey or gray, color or colour.

Thankfully, in the modern era, readers are a little bit more jaded when it comes to such differences thanks to the internet. Pick the one you’re most comfortable with, and again, as stated Monday, be consistent.

Now, back to writing!

One thought on “Being a Better Writer Follow-up: Em-dash Addendum

  1. I’ve found all kinds of differences between UK and US usage. My membership of an online beta-reading website alerted me to some of them, and now I always go looking for differences when researching for edits.
    Nevertheless, your post did help me pin down when to use dashes as opposed to ellipses, which I’ve been a bit hazy about n the past.

    Like

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