While editing Cursed, I have noticed that I tend to use a lot of dashes in my writing. So, I did what any curious person does, and I Googled “when to use dashes” – just to see if I was using them in place of something else when I shouldn’t have been.
This is what I found:
A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.
*from The Elements of Style, fourth edition, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, page 9. For more information about this book, click here.
So that sounds pretty much how I use them – phew!
Another site that I visited, http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/em-dash.html, had a very nice run-through that expands on the above statement, including these tid-bits (more details via the link):
Do not mistake the em dash (—) for the slightly narrower en dash (–) or the even narrower hyphen (-). Those marks serve different purposes.
Em dashes in place of commas: A pair of em dashes can be used in place of commas to enhance readability. Note, however, that dashes are always more emphatic than commas.
Em dashes in place of parentheses: A pair of em dashes can replace a pair of parentheses. Dashes are considered less formal than parentheses; they are also more intrusive. If you want to draw attention to the parenthetical content, use dashes. If you want to include the parenthetical content more subtly, use parentheses.
The em dash in place of a colon: The em dash can be used in place of a colon ( ; ) when you want to emphasize the conclusion of your sentence. The dash is less formal than the colon.
Spaces with the em dash: The em dash is typically used without spaces on either side, and that is the style used in this guide. Most newspapers, however, set the em dash off with a single space on each side.
The last bit is pretty much why I even questioned my use of dashes in the first place. You see, I have been using en dashes with space on either side – as is also used in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series – and I have to say that I never really noticed them until I started reading Michelle Sagara’s Chronicles of Elantra, which uses em dashes with no space either side quite a bit.
So what to do? Which to use?
Do you prefer the more obvious em dashes with no space either side:
Stirring his mocha, Jacob glanced at the brothers every so often, never openly staring—as that generally led to trouble—and wondered what kind of cult they belonged to.
Or, the – I think – less obtrusive en dashes with space either side:
Stirring his mocha, Jacob glanced at the brothers every so often, never openly staring – as that generally led to trouble – and wondered what kind of cult they belonged to.
I think my issue is the width of the em dashes and the fact that there is no space either side. I’m probably just not used to seeing them like that.
What do the readers out there think?