5 Sentences Saved by Em Dashes

By Mark Nichol

Sentential adverbs (words such as indeed or namely and phrases like “that is” and “of course”), and their close cousins the conjunctive adverbs, or adverbial conjunctions (however, “on the other hand,” and the like), indicate an interruption of thought, and should themselves appear as interruptions. Because they are parenthetical remarks (the framing sentence would be complete without them), they should be set off by commas:

“You must, after all, admit that it was a good effort.”

If they are employed to indicate a new thought, stronger punctuation is called for:

“They are highly skilled; however, they do not possess the level of knowledge you do.”

(In each case, the adverb could also appear at the end of the sentence — after a comma.)

Often, though, the interruption in sentence structure is somewhere between comma country and semicolon stature: The phrase that begins with the adverb is something more than a dependent clause but not quite an independent clause. In these cases, the linking function of an em dash is appropriate:

1. “I thank them for putting up with this project with such good sportsmanship, indeed with such exuberance.”
The phrase beginning with indeed is tacked on to the basic sentence to provide an additional, loosely related thought. Note the shift with an em dash, and follow the adverb with a comma to mark elision of a repetition of the phrase “for putting up with”: “I thank them for putting up with this project with such good sportsmanship — indeed, with such exuberance.”

2. “There is a job to be done, namely educating educators how to effectively teach that wildlife conservation addresses quality of life for everyone.”
The phrase that follows “There is a job to be done” is an explanation of what is meant by that phrase. The traditional marker for explanation is a colon, but an em dash does just as well. Again, set the adverb off with a comma: “There is a job to be done — namely, educating educators how to effectively teach that wildlife conservation addresses quality of life for everyone.” (Without the comma, the sentence seems to refer to “namely educating educators,” but how do you do something in a namely manner?)

3. “They may also be judicially voided for being unreasonable, that is, unsupported by the evidence claimed to justify them.”
A colon is often employed to set off a sentence from a subsequent clarification, but the adverb — and the fact that the clarification is an incomplete sentence — justifies use of an em dash here: “They may also be judicially voided for being unreasonable — that is, unsupported by the evidence claimed to justify them.”

4. “Furthermore, a scientific conclusion is based on the past, i.e. previous studies that lead to present conclusions.”
The initials i.e. (an abbreviation for id est, Latin for “that is”) gives you a clue that this sentence can be treated identically to the previous example. Note, however, that just as you follow “that is” with a comma, set i.e. (and the similar e.g., which means “for example”) off from the following phrase: “Furthermore, a scientific conclusion is based on the past — i.e., previous studies that lead to present conclusions.”

5. “Ethics, on the other hand, is future oriented, that is to say a present choice is based on a future desire, intent, or consequence.”
This sentence contains two adverbial phrases: “on the other hand,” and “that is to say.” The first one, a simple parenthetical phrase, need not concern us, but the latter is an expanded version of “that is” and needs the same treatment as the short form: “Ethics, on the other hand, is future oriented — that is to say, a present choice is based on a future desire, intent, or consequence.”

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24 Responses to “5 Sentences Saved by Em Dashes”

  • Esteban

    In my word processor, “blah–blah” auto-formats the text to use what appears to be an em dash with no space between the dash and words. “Blah – blah” auto-formats to be an en dash with space between the dash and words. The em dash you used above has spaces. Is there a difference, or is this just a different style and the length of the dash is all that really matters?

  • Mark Nichol

    Esteban:

    Word-processing programs generally format em dashes without spaces, but many print and online publications leave a letter space (or sometimes a smaller, specially formatted space) so that long word(em dash)word sequences don’t create a train of characters that create awkward end-of-line gaps.

    For example, if a sequence that appears in the post, “sentence (em dash) justifies,” were positioned a touch farther toward the end of a line, the em dash could bump to the next line, but if there were no letter spaces, the entire sequence would have to bump, causing an unsightly deep gouge in the right margin.

    The auto-format to an en dash is technically incorrect, but some people prefer to use an en dash instead of an em dash (or don’t notice the difference).

  • Esteban

    Thanks Mark, that helps. I also noticed that my original post was reformatted to include only one hyphen in my first example, “blah-blah”, when I meant for it to appear “blah-/-blah” (minus the /). (I believe we have HTML code to thank for that!)

  • coffeemonk

    I had always understood the em-dash was to be used without surrounding spaces, and it hadn’t occurred to me that someone might break that convention for primarily aesthetic reasons.

    Also, in many instances I will eliminate the adverb entirely when using an em-dash. Is this appropriate?

  • Peter

    For example, if a sequence that appears in the post, “sentence (em dash) justifies,” were positioned a touch farther toward the end of a line, the em dash could bump to the next line, but if there were no letter spaces, the entire sequence would have to bump, causing an unsightly deep gouge in the right margin.

    Type “sentence—&200B;justifies.” (or “sentence&2014;&200B;justifies”, if you can’t type an em-dash; though “–” works too); &200B; (&zwsp; will probably work) is a zero-width space that allows breaking at that point without inserting a gap.

    But my browser allows line-breaks there anyway; just “sentence—justifies” should be OK.

    The auto-format to an en dash is technically incorrect,

    No it isn’t. Some style guides use an em-dash, others prefer a spaced en-dash; they’re equivalent (just don’t mix them in a single document)

  • Peter

    Correction: use “​”, and “–” (two hyphens: --) doesn’t work; that makes an en-dash (let’s try three: “—” ?)

  • Peter

    Correction 2: use “&&0023;x200B;” (don’t know why it came out blank in the previous…)

  • Peter

    Agh! I give up. Ampersand hash letter-x 200B semicolon ​

  • Sally

    Wouldn’t these sentences work just as well with the em dash replacing the adverbial conjunction? “Ethics, on the other hand, is future oriented — a present choice is based on a future desire, intent, or consequence.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Sally:

    You’re right. “That is to say” is extraneous.

  • Mark Nichol

    Peter:

    My point is that an en dash is technically incorrect in the sense that the default for an em dash is an em dash: The aesthetic choice to favor an en dash in its place is a deviation, just as some people use single hyphens in place of em dashes (ugh).

  • Nancy

    I’m lost. Why are we talking about an em dash or an en dash rather than just a dash or hyphen? What’s the difference?

  • Mark Nichol

    Nancy:

    Read this previous DWT post on hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.

  • jude

    great learning i’ve done, thanks guys

  • Brian

    The HTML stuff confuses me, but no matter. How do I create an en dash in a word processor? I apologize if I missed this somewhere.

  • Mark Nichol

    Brian:

    PC: Alt+150 (Alt+151 for em dash)
    Mac: Option+hyphen (Shift+option+hyphen for em dash)

    In Microsoft Word, you can also enable AutoCorrect, so that when you type (space)hyphen(space), Word formats it as an en dash, and (space)hyphenhyphen(space) produces an em dash, but I prefer to just type it in.

  • Mark Nichol

    Coffeemonk:

    Sometimes for aesthetic reasons, but often for a practical one: See my response to Esteban. And, yes, the adverb or adverbial phrase is often but not always extraneous.

  • Peter

    OpenOffice: go to Tools > Autocorrect Options… and turn on “replace dashes” (if it isn’t already; I believe it’s on by default), then space-hyphen-space and space-hyphen-hyphen-space turn into en-dashes, hyphen-hyphen without spaces turns into an em-dash.

    or, the easier way, if you have a real OS:

    X11 (e.g., Linux, everywhere): type Compose-hyphen-hyphen-period to get an en-dash, Compose-hyphen-hyphen-hyphen to get an em-dash.

  • Peter

    My point is that an en dash is technically incorrect in the sense that the default for an em dash is an em dash: The aesthetic choice to favor an en dash in its place is a deviation, just as some people use single hyphens in place of em dashes (ugh).

    No, it’s not “technically incorrect”, it’s just a stylistic choice. The majority of British publishers, for example, use (space)(en rule)(space) for the parenthetical dash, where American publishers use (em rule). I think the Oxford University Press is the only major British publisher that prefers the em-dash. (I’ve seen US publishers using spaced en-dashes, too; it’s not wholly a British/American thing)

  • coffeemonk

    Mark: I would consider the line-wrapping thing an aesthetic issue, more than a practical one… i suppose it’s a matter of perspective.

    Peter: I’m a Linux user, but I’m confused by your “Compose-hyphen-hyphen-period” thing… what’s “Compose” in this context? The “super” key, or another key?

  • Cathy

    I have consulted all the style guides at my disposal, and I cannot find any where they advocate a space before or after the em dash. They all say no spaces. Please, where are you getting this?

  • Peter

    coffeemonk: “Compose” is the Compose key…also called “Multi_key”. (In my case, the rightmost key on the bottom row. Some people use the right “Alt” key as a kind of shift (“AltGr”), instead, but I don’t know the shift sequences for that)

    Cathy: don’t put a space around em dashes; put a space around en dashes when using them for the same purpose. Either “xxx—yyy” or “xxx – yyy”. (Of course, there are situations where you want spaces around an em dash: when it represent a missing word, for example; but you can’t substitute an en dash for that usage, either)

  • coffeemonk

    Peter: I suppose modern versions of Linux (at least Ubuntu) don’t come with the Compose key setup for “standard” US keyboards, so I’d have to assign it to a key. Alternately, I’ve discovered that Ctrl-Shift-u allows you to enter the unicode number of the character you want… not quite as clean or easy as “–.”, but functional if you just need to remember a few characters.

  • Peter

    Oh, I haven’t used a standard keyboard layout since the 1980s 🙂 I don’t know what the defaults are. It’s well worthwhile setting up a Compose key, though; you can probably remember the codepoints for four or five characters, but its much easier with compose sequences: /o for ø, “o for ö, ,l for ļ, /l for ł, i. for ı, -L for £, ^0 for °, ?? for ¿, !! for ¡, etc.

    (FWIW, my keyboard has the control key next to the “A”, capslock at the bottom left, followed by Hyper, Meta, Spacebar, Alt, ModeSwitch, Super, Compose along the bottom row, the two keys immediately to the right of the “P” are “(” and “)” unshifted and “[” and “]” when shifted, since I use parentheses more often than braces; braces ({}) are moved to the “9” and “0” shifted keys (but temporarily shifted back in my editor, when programming in languages that use them). Holding down the “ModeSwitch” key switches my keyboard to a beta-code Greek layout (θωερτψ …) with various “dead accent” keys (for typing macrons, accented Greek, etc.) and other special characters on the top (number) row: ¬©¶§×÷ø°—–­≠¡¢£€¥^Ø≤≥¯±, though I never actually use them because it’s easier to remember the compose sequences than which key they’re on…)

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