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Writing Quick Tips: Em Dashes + Spaces

This post was written in reply to an ask received on Tumblr. The ask:

Thank you for the quotation marks + punctuation post! That’s one of the top trouble areas I see when I beta read. (Understandable—there are tons of possibilities/rules.) I noticed in the em dashes section, example 2, there are no spaces between the dialogue and em dashes. Is that a hard-and-fast rule, or does it depend on preference/style guide? This is something I utilize in my writing so I would love to know if I’m getting it right, or if it’s simply a matter of being consistent. Thanks again!

The answer:

Ah! Yeah, whether to put spaces is a choice. Some places use hair spaces, some thin spaces, some non-breaking spaces, some full spaces. Duck Prints Press opts for no spaces around em dashes in most cases.* Out of curiosity, I just checked CMoS—while I couldn’t find a place that explicitly said “do it this way”…well, in all their examples of em dash use, they do NOT put spaces around the em dashes, so I’d say that at least in CMoS the most grammatically correct usage would be to not put spaces on either side of the em dash.

*In most cases = virtually always in narrative, one major exception in dialog. When we use an em dash to denote interruption, sometimes there will be a full space after.

Ex. 1: “No matter where you go—no matter what you do—I’ll always be here for you.”

Explanation: this is a usage of an em dash that mirrors em dash usage in regular narrative text—essentially a form of parenthetical/aside—so it gets em dashes with no spaces.

Ex. 2: “I just said don’t—”

Explanation: this is the end of the quoted dialog. It would be heckin’ weird to put a space between the em dash and the closing quotation mark.

Ex. 3: “Why don’t—why don’t we just not?”

Explanation: this is self-interruption but the sentence that continues is the same as/part of the same sentence that was interrupted, so we don’t use a space. Our intention is to denote that the part before and after the em dash are still part of the same, like, context/concept. It’s the continuation of the same idea.

Ex. 4: “Look, I just— Don’t start with me, okay!”

Explanation: here’s the case where we use a space (our space case? lmao). It’s self-interruption, but when the the speaker resumes, it’s neither a parenthetical aside nor a continuation of the same sentence. It’s a brand new sentence. To help make that clear, we use a space there (and a capital letter.

Bonus—Ex. 5: Just as he was about to speak, I cut in— “Don’t say it!”

Explanation: this is about the only case I can think of where I’d use a space after an em dash in narrative/descriptive text, and it’s also to make interruption clear. Stylistically, a lot of writers will never even use this kind of phrasing, but it’s a permissible stylistic choice to write narrative interruption this way, and when people opt to do it, we do put a space between the end of the description and the start of the dialog, for the same reason as in Ex. 4—it’s a new sentence and it’s clearer with the space.

Contrast with: Just as he started to speak—”I already know,” I expected he’d say—I interrupted him and said, “Don’t say it.”

In this one, though there is a dialog piece/quoted material within the em dashes, it IS a parenthetical aside, so there’s no space.

Bonus—Ex. 6: “Whatever you do”—he waggled a finger in my face—”don’t go in the forest.”

Explanation: when an action is inserted in the middle of dialog, it’s essentially a parenthetical aside, just it’s a non-dialog parenthetical shoved into a dialog chunk, so it follows the same rules as an em dash aside would in other cases—so no spaces.

Again, this is one of those areas where there’s no hard-and-fast rule, and I’d expect different Press’ internal style guides to handle this em dash + space usage in different ways, but this is how I’ve opted to handle it, as lead editor at Duck Prints Press.

(the key, in the end, is consistency—if you pick one way and always do it that way, I doubt anyone is gonna give you shit, though you should expect that if you then submit that to a Press, the Press will edit it to match their preferred style to ensure uniformity within and across their publications).

Thank you so much for sending an ask! It’s always exciting when we actually get editing/writing asks. As a reminder, y’all, anyone reading this, always feel free to send us questions like this! We are grammar pedants and we are only to happy to be pedantic on whatever SPAG topic you’d like to know more about!

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