It sounds funny, right? ‘What is an… em and en rule?’ almost sounds like I’m talking about the delicious chocolate treats! Well, they’re not as delicious as they are, but when used correctly in your day-to-day writing they can definitely sweeten what you’re trying to say (bad pun, I know).
Let’s be serious for a moment. I know when I first heard the term ‘em and en rule’, I was very confused and all I could ask was… well, ‘what is an em and en rule?’. Well, turns out they’re the names of the different lengths of dashes. You know when you’re typing on Word and you pop in a dash or two, and then you hit the space bar and it changes length? In that moment, you are being introduced to an em or en rule!
How can you tell the difference? It’s not too hard, I promise! Think about what they’re called and it might just come to you…
If you haven’t guessed it yet, it basically means the length of the dash is the width of an M or N. Yep, that’s where they get their names from! However, don’t be fooled by the simplicity of their given names because their use is a little more complex than that. Or, it may seem complex until I do my show-and-tell, then they’ll be as easy to understand as their delicious names!
Let’s get the big guy out of the way first. I admit, I use this guy more often than their counterpart. Some may even say too often, but I think you’ll understand why when you learn how to use them!
One of my major uses is for parenthetic expressions, where instead or writing them in parentheses or between commas you can chuck in an em rule instead! It really emphasises the point since sometimes it can be lost between commas or brushed past if in parentheses. For example, you could be writing that someone was going to the shops to grab a few items. Those items in your story might hold some significance and you want the reader or audience to notice it, so you might write it like ‘Tiffany dashed off to the shops to pick up the essentials—apples, toilet paper and a one-minute frozen meal for emergencies—and burst through the meeting room door just in time’.
You see how it became very noticeable? However, em rules aren’t just used for that! They are also used for abrupt changes, such as ‘I saw him down the street and really wanted to ask him about his rug—but that’s not the main point of this story’, as well as to amplify or explain something—for example, what I am doing now.
It becomes very easy to use this em rule a lot. I know, I use it all the time! However, it is best to avoid using them more than once in a sentence. My recommendation is to combine them with commas and parentheses… or just start another sentence!
Now, I know I never mentioned a 2-em rule but they do exist! They aren’t used all that often and are longer than your average em rule (approximately two M’s together). Their main uses are in reference lists and bibliographies, so a writer doesn’t need to keep repeating the authors if they are referenced more than once, and when there is a sudden break in speech, for example, ‘I wanted to run away and——’. They can also be handy when omitting information or names from your work!
Unlike the em rule, the en rule is all about linking words or numbers together. So, this could be spans of time or distance, such as 6–10. However, it is important to note that when using them in this way, you need to know when there needs to be spaces in between words or numbers and the en rule. All you need to remember is that if there is more than one word that is being used in the link, then you need to use spaces! For example, ‘from April–June’ compared to ‘the delivery of the Australia – United States research project’.
En rules can be complicated because they can also be used in a range of other ways. They are used in some prefixes, usually when there is more than one word following the en rule such as ‘an anti–grammar research proposal’, otherwise a normal hyphen is used. The same can be said for compound adjectives!
Finally, en rules are also used in mathematics to indicate negative numbers or subtraction. For negative numbers, there is no space between the en rule and the number, whereas in subtraction that is a space on either side of the en rule.
And that’s it! Now you are more knowledgeable about the em and en rules, so you can go out there and show your amazing grammatical prowess while using them. They can provide extra emphasis and remove ambiguity, which I think is pretty neat! However, I now have a craving for something chocolatey and delicious…
I hope you enjoyed learning about this! Let me know what you think on social media or in the comments below. Remember to ignite the story and I’ll see you again soon!
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.