Monday, November 23, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: Em, En, Oh Please

The story of ems and ens is one of the usual sibling rivalry. Different strokes for different folks; different rules for these two very different tools. Unfortunately, folks often want to misuse or replace one for the other. And while they may be siblings, the em and en dash are definitely not twins; therefore, they should be treated as individuals with their own unique personalities and abilities. In fact, an en is actually equal to half of an em (referring to their typographical measurements). But that doesn't mean an en isn't as good; ens and ems are just different. The basic distinguishing factor is how to type these elements. Think of it in terms of their similarity to the hyphen, their cousin; in this case, an en dash is one hyphen and an em dash is two hyphens.

Since they don't look identical, their purposes are different as well. We love the em dash because it has numerous uses and can be very versatile to the needs of a writer. Most frequently, an em dash is used to amplify or explain, much like commas, parentheses, or colons set apart other parts in a sentence. The influence of three impressionists--Monet, Sisley, and Degas--is obvious in her work.

Another use for the em dash is to separate a subject (or series of subjects) from the pronoun that introduces the main clause: Darkness, thunder, a sudden scream--nothing alarmed the child. Writers also need to sometimes indicate sudden breaks in the sentence structure, perhaps as interruptions in thoughts or dialogue, and an em dash is perfect for this purpose.

The en dash is a whole different story, most commonly called upon to connect numbers and occasionally to connect words as well. En dashes can stand in place of the words up to and including (or through). As in, Join us o Thursday, 11:30 am - 4:00 pm, to celebrate the New Year. To be consistent though, the en dash should not be used in place of to, if from precedes the first element. An en dash may also appear by itself after a date, indicating that something has not yet ended, like an event, a publication or a person's life.

Chicago also says that multiple em dashes can be used together. Oh please. But it's true! A 2-em dash would be used to omit or disguise something, possibly a name, an expletive, or other information that is missing. When a whole word is missing, space appears on both sides of the dash; no space will appear between the dash and the existing parts when only part of a word is missing. Now, for the really crazy part. A 3-em dash can also be used in a bibliography. Followed by a period, a 3-em dash represents that the same author or editor is named in the preceding entry.

Life lesson: These two typographical rules may be different from each other. But an em dash can't do the work of an en dash, and vice versa. So we'll keep them both, because, after all, they're family.

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