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  
Tags: , , , ,

Scott’s School of Grammar: “Scott Free”


I have been wondering about the origins of this phrase for quite some time. I finally took the time to research it, and the results were somewhat surprising. I’ll give you three possibilities, with the answer to follow in a soon-to-come comment:

1) Dred Scott was a black slave born in Virginia, USA in 1799. In several celebrated court cases, right up to the USA Supreme Court in 1857, he attempted to gain his freedom. These cases all failed but Scott was later made a free man by his ‘owners’, the Blow family. The etymology of this phrase shows the danger of trying to prove a case on circumstantial evidence alone.

2) The origin of the phrase “scott free” lies in the original wording, “scotch free”. “Scotch” is used in this sense to be a scratch, mar, or scar, particularly in a grid pattern. Similar uses of “scotch” in this context include “butterscotch”, (made with butter, has to be sliced up in the pan after cooling), “hop=scotch”, (a child’s game that in part involves “hop”-ping over grid lines /”scotches”) and “Scotch plaid”, (refering to the regular gridwork formed by the boundaries of the different colors/patterns). Hence, to escape “scott free” is emerge from a dangerous circumstance without even a scratch or mark, much less more severe damage.

3) The term is a contraction of ‘scot and lot’. Scot was the tax and lot, or allotment, was the share given to the poor. Scot as a term for tax has been used since then to mean many different types of tax. Whatever the tax, the phrase ‘scot free’ just refers to not paying one’s taxes

Answer to follow on Sunday 6/22/08

Comment your guess!


Published in: on June 20, 2008 at 3:09 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: ,

Scott’s School of Grammar: The Adjective Comma


Another new edition to the site: Scott’s School of Grammar. 

It’s grammar taken seriously. 

Not that I’m a teacher, philologian, or anything of the sort, they are just good writing rules I’ve been re-learning lately.

The adjective comma was actually one my roommate asked; I responded, “use the and rule!” and then realized that I myself had forgotten the and rule. In case you too have forgotten, here it is, 

Use a comma to separate two adjectives when the word and can be inserted between them.

Examples: He is a strong, healthy man.

We stayed at an expensive summer resort. You would not say expensive and summer resort, so no comma. 

(you can check out this and other comma rules here) case you forgot what an adjective is..

adjective – a word that modifies a noun, a.k.a. white in white house


Grammar seems to be a theme in my life right now. I am currently reading a great book, The American Language by H.L. Mencken, that deals with the history of the American branch of English from colonial times to 1937. Apparently, there was a great hostility between the American and English branch of English that I was not aware of:

I don’t go to the cinema often, but I had to be present at one a few days ago, when an American film was shown. The words and accent were perfectly disgusting, and there can be no doubt that such films are an evil influence on our language. It is said that 30,000,000 British people visit the cinemas every week. What is the use of spending millions on education if our young people listen to falsified English spoken every night?” –   Honorable William Graham, President of the Board of Trade


Scott’s School of Grammar is an idea I have been kicking around for a while; the confluence of these 2 things – my roommate’s question, and the outrageous views spoken of in this book – motivated me to action. 

From now on, picture Conan the Librarian hanging over your shoulder as you edit your writing,

Don’t yu know the gram-mar usage? 

Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 9:45 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , ,