Scott’s School of Grammar: Em & En

Yes, I went there.

It’s been awhile since ol’ Rivene brought the grammar love. As I was trudging through a combination of work-related work, and non-paid work-related work, I stumbled across a helpful reminder regarding the use of ems and ens ( and no, I’m not referring to our great Detroit-boy Marshall Mathers).

I’m actually referring to those helpful, though sometimes confusing, “-“s and “- -“s.  Before we go into what these amazing little lines can do for you, let’s break down the difference between them.


First, we got the en, punctuated exactly like a hyphen “-“. It replaces the word “to” (**see note below regarding to**):

He groaned when the preacher said, “We’ll be reading from Genesis 11:10-29.”

My teacher sounded my deathnote when she told us, “Read pages 9-350 by Friday, and be ready to discuss it. A pop quiz may be in your future.”

Secondly, we got the em, just like the hyphen, but two of them “- -“. These powerful little lines can replace many other types of punctuation- -commas, semicolons, colons, and parentheses:

I never imagined I would write a grammar blog post with such punless taste- -my friends assure me it was only a matter of time before I hopped down that rabbit hole.

If it’s true that I only get one shot before I blow- -keep your distance if I’ve been eating Ho-Hos.

It becomes obvious- -even in these silly examples- -that the en is more commonly used than the em. It’s because the writer has a choice of keeping those semicolons, commas, etc., that it seems like the en gets all the love- -at least in academic circles where confusion can result in grade point deductions- -while the ems are left to the flowery world of the poets. And among the poets, many readers may be tempted to think first and foremost of Emily Dickinson’s frequent “-“s, but this would be technically incorrect, as Ms. Dickinson’s use of “-“s in her poetry follows rules that exist- -generally- -in her mind & writing only:

A long—long Sleep—A famous—Sleep—
That makes no show for Morn—
By Stretch of Limb—or stir of Lid—
An independent One—

Was ever idleness like This?
Upon a Bank of Stone
To bask the Centuries away—
Nor once look up—for Noon?

Emily Dickinson “Poem 654”

Sometimes Ms. Dickinson’s “-“s follow the rules of em & en, but more often, they seem to follow the fanciful meter of the poet. If we want to see a poet-writer who uses them properly, we must turn to a “simpler” writer:

I opened my eyes
And looked up at the rain,
And it dripped in my head
And flowed into my brain,
And all that I hear as I lie in my bed
Is the slishity-slosh of the rain in my head.

I step very softly,
I walk very slow,
I can’t do a handstand- –
I might overflow,
So pardon the wild crazy thing I just said- –
I’m just not the same since there’s rain in my head.

Shel Silverstein, “Rain”

Notice how Mr. Silverstein’s use of “- -” after handstand replaces a “,” that would fit equally well. The same is true of the “- -” after said. He uses the ems to create variety, spicing things up a bit.


So let’s recap- –ems are used to replace symbols, while ens are used to replace to. Used together, they give the writer extra spice to use in their works, breaking up the doldrums of familiar punctuation.

But- -like any spice- -both the em- -and the en- -can be overdone- -leaving your poor reader- -only wanting to get from page 1-the end- -floundering.

Just like you wouldn’t put too much chili powder in your pot, don’t put too many ems & ens in your writing.


Rivene would like to thank the following sources for making this post possible- –

Poem Hunter

The Ps and Qs of Ems and Ens by Kristy Schnabel


**It should be pointed out that I am unclear whether to and through have, through common use, become  interchangeable (e.g. I often hear pastors say, “Turn in your Bibles to Amos 2:1 to 10″ then continue to read through the tenth verse, even though,  technically, to means up to— he worked from 9-5, meaning he did not work the 5:00 hour; while through, in the same example, means he worked from 9 through 5, including the 5:00 hour).

If someone knows whether to and through are now interchangeable, or whether it is merely commonly misused, please note it in the comments. Thanks! And my thanks to Jonathan Paul for pointing this out to me!

Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 11:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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