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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Writing Tools: Making em dashes

     I love the em dash. It's one of my favorite punctuation marks. It's also not the easiest one to break out at a moment's notice, and the usage is a little non-standard. I'll leave the usage up to you as googling it and finding out the various arguments for its use as dictated by the Chicago Manual of Style is out there in bulk. And it's on Wikipedia.
     For this post, I'll just go over how various word processors make the durned thing. I have no illusions about Word's dominance, so it's up first.
     In Word, there are a couple of ways to form the em dash. First, assuming that the autoformating is enabled (which, by default, it is), type a word followed by two hyphens (--) followed by the second word. As soon as you hit the space bar after the second word, the word processor will automatically replace it with an em dash. An alternate method is to press CTRL + ALT + Num -. This is the minus sign on the number pad, which is different from the hyphen and underscore key. Laptop users without a number pad will have to first turn on their num lock key, then find the minus sign on their regular keyboard (on my Thinkpad, it's the ; key). Obviously, having the autoformat is a much quicker way to form this punctuation. You can also go the insert symbol route, where it appears at the top of the special characters list (you can also specify a new shortcut here).
     WordPerfect has something similar to Word, but instead of two hyphens, it's three (---), and it replaces themas soon as the first letter after the hyphens is typed. I find this more useful as it allows me to put a dash at the end of a line of dialogue followed by a closing quotation mark to indicate a speaker has been cut off or interrupted.
     For the GoogleDocs users, there's no easy shortcut. You need to go into it from the menus: Insert > Special Characters. Left drop down select Punctuation. Right drop down select Dash/Connector. Em Dash is dead center (not the Horizontal Bar as they're typographically different).
     Last there are the ASCII, Unicode, and html methods, which are summarized in Wikipedia's Common Dashes
     Remember that the em dash is your friend. Use it wisely; use it correctly; it will never let you down.
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