Thursday, August 09, 2012

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, August 09, 2012 19 comments
If you thought this was going to be a post about Olympic sprinters, I'm sorry to disappoint. It's about punctuation. Specifically, my pal the em dash.

An em dash — gets its name from the typesetters of old. It is a dash the width of a lowercase m. It is not to be confused with the trusty hyphen - or the en dash  (a lowercase n in width, and seldom used in fiction. My typesetter at work uses them in page ranges, like 23–46).

Em dashes have a few primary functions in fiction:
1. To show an interruption or stuttering, spluttering speech


"I just got back from—"
"Liar! I saw your lights on an hour ago."

"She just  she isn't she never should have gone there in the first place!"

2. To punctuate an aside or explanation, instead of using formal-looking parentheses or colons

I took care of all the pets  not that you asked  and really need a moment to rest.

Stuart did exactly what the coach asked lengthened his stride, pumped his arms, and kept his posture tall.

3. To set off long, descriptive appositives, instead of a tangle of commas

The coach's instructions lengthen your stride, pump your arms, keep your posture tall helped Stuart improve his performance immediately.

Linda's dress teal brocade with slashed sleeves, plunging neckline and seed-pearl trim was the talk of this year's Renaissance Fest.

Em dashes typically appear automatically as you type in Microsoft Word when you type two hyphens, followed by more text. They don't automatically appear if you follow them by, say, a quotation mark. This means you often need to hand-code sections of dialogue. Irritating, I know.

If pull-down menus make you batty, consider using a keyboard short cut. For PC users, type Alt+ 0151 (type the numbers while holding the Alt key--I like my number pad for this). Mac users, type Option+ Shift+  - (type a hyphen while holding the Option and Shift keys).

So, I have a minor dilemma when it comes to using em dashes: How to space around them?

The Elements of Grammar book has no spaces around them.
The entire Harry Potter series has spaces on each side of them.
I've seen a few published books in which there's no space before, but one after IF it's representing stuttering or spluttering.

I have to make a style decision in order to get my novel ready for layout. I'm leaning toward following Scholastic's lead in how they formatted Rowling's books. There's a nice openness to the look.

What do you think? Do you like thistight look? Do you prefer this open look? Or do a hybrid?

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19 comments:

  1. Personally, I used the tight version simply because I think the open version slows the reading a bit. (Probably it doesn't, but it's just what I'm comfortable with.)

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    1. Thanks for weighing in. Visual pacing is a consideration.

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  2. I love my em dashes. I use them all the time.

    I used to use the open look, but have switched to the tight look after being corrected. Like Connie, I do think that the tight version seems to flow more smoothly to the eyes.

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    1. Corrected, huh? Interesting. Scholastic doesn't think it's "wrong" to add spaces. LOL. I think this is purely a style consideration, meaning either way is correct. You just have to make a decision and be consistent.

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  3. Good to know! Thanks for the info. I'm always learning something new in the grammar department, it seems. :)

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    1. It is a handy bit of punctuation. After all, who speaks in parentheses?

      I might do a follow-up post at some time about hand-coding and little formatting tweaks that make a document more readable.

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  4. I use the tight look, but I do leave a space after if I want to convey stuttering.

    My computer does not add them automatically if I leave a space.

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    1. Thanks for weighting in Carmen. I'd been using the hybrid approach too, but my editor wanted me to think it through more.

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  5. I'm a fan of em dashes, too. I prefer open.

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    1. And I know you're a Harry Potter fan. I bet that might be why. :-)

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  6. I prefer the open look. And great explanation, by the way!!! Just might use this post in my advanced writing class. (I teach at a local college.)

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    1. Hi Wendy! Thanks for the follow.

      I have loads of other grammar and mechanics posts that might prove useful. Check the tags "grammar and mechanics" and "punctuation" in the sidebar.

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  7. I prefer the open look myself. However, that being said, I hardly ever use them. I prefer the old style of using ellipses in dialogue. If I do use them, it's generally in place of a semi-colon.

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    1. Thanks for weighing in, Anne.

      In my mind, elipses communicate drifting off or hesitation, while dashes communicate an abrupt truncation of speech, either by another speaker, or by the individual who's interrupting him/herself.

      I use both sets of punctuation in order to have that variety of texture.

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  8. I love this post. I need to have my students read it. Great reminders and excellent examples. Tweeted it!

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  9. Oh, I ADORE the em dash.

    I used to prefer the open look of a space on each side. But lately I've changed to no spaces. Info I found lately suggests that this is preferred. But I think consistency is the most important thing. A space after is fine if it indicates dialogue broken off, but otherwise we should use either both spaces or neither. In the end, it's not a big deal because it is a stylistic issue and house style will determine what's used.

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    1. You're right that house style dictates on matters like this. That's what makes it tricky when you self-publish--you have to decide what your house style will be! :-)

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  10. I like the tight look, but I don't have a good reason. Good luck with Never Gone, it is a fabulous read!

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