The Untimely Death of the Em Dash—Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Defend the Em Dash

The em dash is an essential punctuation mark—one that the writers of the Style Manual think the Australian public is not intelligent enough to use.

According to the sixth edition of the Snooks & Co. Style Manual—as well as all the most significant texts on the correct usage of Australian English—the em dash has three main uses (along with several others):

  • to set apart parenthetic elements
  • to introduce an amplification or explanation (standing in for a colon or semicolon)
  • to introduce an explanatory aside or signify an abrupt change in the direction of the sentence.

But no more. Not if we stay silent and simply allow this great injustice to transpire. For there are evil forces afoot conspiring to destroy our beloved em dash …

The newly released online version of the Australian Government’s Style Manual still in its beta stage—has stripped the em dash of its most significant purposes, leaving it with only these: ‘use 2 [sic!] em dashes for some quoted speech and deliberate omissions in text’. (Did they seriously just use ‘2’ in a heading? And then in the following sentences? Don’t worry, there will be another article on that next!)

So, horror of horrors… 

The Style Manual is proposing that the unspaced em dash no longer be used in Australian English for parenthetic purposes or to amplify, explain or signify an abrupt change.

Instead of spaced em dashes, the Style Manual stipulates—I can barely bring myself to type these words—the use of spaced en dashes.

 Oh, the humanity!

(Since I’ve just compared changing the rules surrounding em dashes to the Hindenburg Disaster, now is probably an appropriate time to mention that I have nothing but the utmost respect for the highly experienced and talented staff who have been working tirelessly to bring us the new Style Manual.)

Why? What has caused this depressing turn of events?

In the ‘Style Manual update’ issued by email to subscribers on 29 June 2020, the writers gave four reasons for their decision. I’ll take the second reason first, Alex.

Reason the second: ‘Users may not know the difference between hyphens and unspaced dashes.’

This is the most disturbing and, I suspect, the main reason driving the decision.

This, I propose, is why the writers of the Style Manual wish to sound the death knell for one of our most cherished pieces of punctuation, loved by writers, editors and grammarians alike since its birth (in its modern form) in the 1550s.

They think we are not intelligent enough to use the unspaced em dash.

They think that if there is no space either side, we won’t be able to discern a hyphen (the shortest one) from an em dash (the longest one). They think that the Australian education system isn’t up to the task of teaching students that there are, in fact, two dashes in addition to the hyphen and that each has a distinct use. (Well … there might be a case to be made, there.)

Riddle me this, Batman. Can you tell the difference between this ‘-’ and this ‘—’?

Does one, perhaps, look longer to you?


This ‘-’ is a hyphen, and this ‘—’ is an em dash. I have been teaching students, authors and editors the difference for a long time. It isn’t that difficult. We’ve done it in this short post on our blog previously.

The three other reasons given are really the same reason:

  • ‘Screen readers can’t tell the difference between hyphens and unspaced dashes.
  • E-books will join the words either side of an unspaced dash, to make one mashed-up word.
  • Most word processors will treat words separated by unspaced dashes as one word causing messy line breaks.’

Essentially, em dashes do not play nice with technology. However, it seems clear to me that the more appropriate course of action would have been to provide advice on how to use em dashes to ensure digital publications are accessible while allowing us to continue to use our much-loved em dashes in the traditional, correct way. That way, the writers of the Style Manual might not have inadvertently insulted the collective intelligence of the Australian public. (One of my particular favourite quotations from an insulted member of the public is, ‘You can pry em dashes—yes, these ones—out of my cold, dead hands’.)

Seriously though, this isn’t just about offending a small percentage of grammar nerds. The suggested change to the role of the em dash is part of a broader set of proposed changes that would make our use of Australian English less sophisticated, and it is being done under the guise of making it more accessible and more user-friendly in a digital environment.

The suggestion that we should change the English language due to the current limitations of some (not all!) digital technology is almost as ridiculous and harmful as the idea that one should lose weight to fit into designer clothing.

‘You don’t alter Vera Wang to fit you. You alter yourself to fit Vera!’

A spaced en dash already has a job. Or does it?

The spaced en dash already has other specific purposes. For example, you use an en dash when you are linking spans of figures, time and distance and to show an association between words that retain their separate identities. If what you are linking or showing an association between has just one word on either side, you use an unspaced en dash, like this: ‘Darwin–Adelaide railway’. But if what you are linking or showing an association between has two or more words on either side, then you use a spaced en dash like this: ‘Northern Territory – South Australia railway’.

So how does giving the spaced en dash more uses make the situation less confusing for users? Well, you take some of them away.

Under the rules of the sixth edition of the Style Manual, there were a set of roles performed by the hyphen, the en dash and the em dash. Is the new Style Manual suggesting that all those roles now be performed by just the hyphen and the en dash?

No. It is suggesting that you rewrite to avoid those tricky, overly complicated uses of the en dash. Goodness, even having to use an en dash in place of a hyphen for prefixes in some circumstances is considered something to be avoided! (More on that later.)

Don’t get me wrong. I know that English is a living, evolving language. At Capstone Editing, we aren’t strict, traditionalist grammarians who won’t stand for change in any form. But there is a big difference between language evolving as culture and technology evolve (‘electronic mail’ becoming ‘e-mail’ and then ‘email’), and language devolving as common errors become common usage (e.g., dictionaries including a figurative meaning for the word ‘literally’).

Why don’t we work on educating people as to the correct usage of Australian English instead of trying to dumb it down in our official government guide? That’s not what is happening in other parts of the world. 

What do the other guides on Australian English usage say?

Pam Peters’ Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage was published in 2007. It provides an evidence-based account of the variable points in the usage of Australian English drawing on a broad range of primary (e.g., linguistic corpora, the internet and public surveys of usage) and secondary sources (e.g., English dictionaries, style manuals and grammar textbooks).

According to this highly respected guide, painstakingly researched and well-grounded in both linguistic study and actual usage, the unspaced em dash comes out on top not only for parenthetical use but also for summarising and amplification (Peters, 2007). The unspaced en dash that ‘may be used instead’ (p. 195) is relegated to a mere mention, with a nod to Butcher’s Copy-editing (see below).

Dr Mark Tredinnick (2008) writes of the em dash, ‘good writers love it’ (p. 159). The Little Green Grammar Book was published in 2008. This is undoubtedly Australia’s stand-out guide to grammar and style. It is first on the required reading list for our own Your Editing Career Launched course. It’s on the Institute of Professional Editors’ (IPEd) recommended reading list for editors, one of only eight books in the Language section. It’s probably on the required reading list for every editing course in Australia.

Dr Tredinnick (2008) doesn’t just state that the unspaced em dash should be employed for its traditional three main uses. He puts forward the most eloquent and convincing argument for why it must be the em dash that does this work. He describes it as ‘an old and honourable piece of punctuation’ (p. 159), and defines it so:

The dash—to put it formally—is mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon and more relaxed than parentheses. (p. 159)

He goes yet further, to explain how its very form makes it perfectly suited for its purpose:

One notices it, and slows without stopping, and eases into the aside. For the dash catches the eye (and ear) faster and longer than the comma. It makes a longer pause. Look at it; see how its longlean form serves its slowinglinking function. (p. 160)

Indeed, unspaced en dashes – these monstrosities, here – are stilted. An en dash doesn’t form a link. It isn’t long or lean. Frankly, it is inelegant. And yucky. On screen and on the page.

 The Australian Guide to Legal Citation—the 4th edition of which was published in 2018—notes in its foreword that ‘It is easy to dismiss rules of punctuation and legal citation as the province of pedants and to imply that attention to such matters privileges style over substance. Punctuation, however, can be critical to meaning and clarity’ (p. vi). Thank you.

Its rules state, unsurprisingly, that ‘an em-dash (—) may be used to indicate an interruption within a sentence or in place of a colon. Em-dashes may also be used on both sides of a parenthetical remark or apposition’ (Melbourne University Law Review Association, 2018, p. 23).

There is not one style guide or key text in use in Australia that uses spaced en dashes in place of unspaced em dashes.

Americans can tell the difference

The two definitive and most commonly used guides to US English—The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), 17th edition, published in 2017, and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), 7th edition, published in 2019—both dictate the use of the em dash for all three of its traditional main applications.

CMOS describes the role of an em dash as being ‘to set off an amplifying or explanatory element and in that sense [it] can function as an alternative to parentheses … commas … or a colon—especially when an abrupt break in thought is called for’ (2017, p. 399).

APA states simply that em dashes are to be used ‘to set off an element added to amplify or digress’ (2019, p. 157).

What about the other key texts on the usage of US English? One of our favourite grammaristas, Mignon Fogarty, did the work for us by checking all the main style guides in use in the US. She says that ‘every style guide I checked, except the AP [Associated Press] Stylebook, stated there should be no spaces between an em-dash and the adjacent words’ (Quick and Dirty Tips, 2011).

Fogarty (2011, pp. 123–124, p. 266) even explains how to use em dashes to high school students in her Ultimate Writing Guide for Students.

(Note that despite the fact that ‘US’ is a noun and not an adjective, I use the term ‘US English’ instead of ‘American English’ in recognition of the fact that the US doesn’t constitute the entire continent of America.)

What about British English?

The most up-to-date source and respected guide to the proper usage of British English has to be the current House Style of the Oxford University Press (OUP). It says of the em dash, in what sounds in my head like a very authoritative tone, that ‘Oxford style uses it as a parenthetical dash. No space is required either side of the em rule.’

In true British style, the rules haven’t changed at Oxford since their inception. OUP’s first record of em dashes is in Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford, which was printed for in-house use in 1893 (and published as a book in 1904), having been developed by Horace Hart over the course of his career.

The only style guide I found, anywhere, other than the new Style Manual to advocate the use of spaced en dashes in place of unspaced em dashes for parenthetical purposes is Butcher’s Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for editors, copy-editors and proofreaders (2006, pp. 151–152). Although it may be the case that spaced en dashes have been more commonly used in place of unspaced em dashes in Britain than elsewhere, I would argue that Butcher’s is outdated—its fourth edition having been printed in 2006—and can hardly be considered any basis upon which to form an argument for the modern use of the convention.

And CMOS does make a note at 6.83 (as the Style Manual points to in their Release Notes in a way that feels like grasping for justification) that ‘in British usage, an en dash (with a space before and after) is usually preferred to the em dash’ (2017, p. 398).

Honestly, I’m not sure it is more common in Britain anymore, though it clearly once was. There’s a lot of research (and common sense) demonstrating that British English is adopting the conventions of US English more and more, just as we are.

And if the Style Manual is aiming to reflect what is most commonly in use, then I’d say US English is our best bet.

(Note that I use the term ‘British English’ rather than ‘UK English’ because the guides I have referred to do not seem to have taken into account English usage in Scottland or Northern Ireland, for example.)

And the definitive guide to English usage?

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage—the fourth edition of which was published by OUP in 2015—is sometimes thought of as a style guide to British English usage. Certainly, that was the case when it was written originally by Henry Fowler in 1926. OUP, however, has revised and updated it to give us a guide that is international in scope. OUP describes the new Fowler’s as providing ‘in-depth coverage of both British and American English usage, with reference also to the English of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa’. It’s on IPEd’s list of recommended texts.

If there is to be one definitive guide for English usage that covers Australia, the US and the UK, Fowler’s would have to be it.

And, you guessed it, it says that an em dash—do I really need to tell you?

The longer em rule (—) is the more familiar in everyday use, and corresponds to what most people understand by the term dash. Its principal uses are: (a) a single dash used to introduce an explanation or expansion of what comes before, the explanatory statement usually being followed by a full stop … and (b) a pair of dashes used to indicate asides and parentheses, forming a more distinct break than commas would. (Butterfield, 2015, pp. 201–202)

The Style Manual and academic writing

The sixth edition of the Style Manual was called the Style Manual for authors, editors and printers. It was widely known as the official guide to Australian English for both the Australian Government and universities.

Given that it was written primarily for government purposes—and that its focus was on Plain English—there were several instances in which its rules or stylistic choices were not suitable for academic writing. Coupled with the fact that it had not been updated since 2003, Capstone Editing had to develop its own house style that was appropriate for formal academic writing and met international publication standards. Largely, however, our editing—and academic writing in Australia in general—complied with the Style Manual.

I can tell you in no uncertain terms that this will no longer be the case. The untimely death of the em dash is just the beginning. The new Style Manual has its attention squarely placed on ease of use, accessibility and Plain English: the plainer, the better. There are a plethora of changes that are simply not going to fly in academic writing.

I’m certainly not going to be the editor who rewrites the work of a pre-eminent professor to ‘avoid joining prefixes with an en dash’.

‘What on earth have you done? You’ve completely changed my style, and my work is now devoid of my authorial voice! Look here, you changed “pre–Cold War policies” to “policies from before the Cold War”! That’s just verbose. Why would you make such an unnecessary and intrusive change?’

‘Uh, well, Professor X, I did that to comply with the Style Manual——’

I’ve used two em dashes in the above example to indicate the interruption to my speech by the door being slammed in my face. That use is still allowed in the Style Manual.

Oh, and the above example is taken from the Style Manual itself, which provides that specific change as an example, as if ‘policies from before the Cold War’ is an improvement on ‘pre–Cold War policies’ because it removes the need to use the nasty en dash in place of a hyphen for the prefix. This was given as an example of how one should aim to write—I fell promptly off my chair when I read it.

Where to from here?

If we stand by and do nothing, if we let the writers of the Style Manual relegate the em dash to a meagre role in ‘some quoted speech and deliberate omissions’, then it will be a sad day for lovers of precision and clarity everywhere.

So let’s not do nothing.

The team that produced the Style Manual did have an Advisory Board, and it did perform research. But the Style Manual has only just now been launched to the public, and the team is seeking feedback. The ‘Style Manual update’ dated 30 July 2020 said ‘we want to know what you think’.

Meaghan Newson, Style Manual Product Owner (that’s a strange title, I didn’t know our official government style manual was a product to be owned), takes pains to convince us that our feedback will be considered and built into the ‘Live product’ that is set to be released in September.

There’s a feedback form on every page of the Style Manual. I implore you to let them know what you think about the untimely death of the em dash. If you’d like some suggested text for your feedback, here’s some:

Please change your em dash rules back to those of the sixth edition.

In good humour and with great respect

We hope that the writers, editors and Advisory Board at the Style Manual will take our dislike of their decisions with the same good humour as did the team at Fowler’s, who included some of the ‘Dislikes’ they had received in their preliminary pages, where one usually finds positive reviews. At least we didn’t use the words ‘barbaric, illiterate, offensive, damnable, and inexcusable’ (Butterfield, 2015, p. vi) in our description of any of their stylistic choices!

(As previously stated, Capstone Editing has the utmost respect for the highly experienced and talented staff who have worked tirelessly to put the Style Manual together. We mean no offence by our efforts to defend the em dash.)

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