Senior year of high school, we did a lot of peer editing in my English class. That was when I first realized that I used a syntax technique that my classmate thought was something wrong that I made up. So then I got paranoid until college, when my Shakespeare professor said that he used too many em dashes. Then I thought, "Wait, I use dash-thingies. M dashes? Is that a dash-thingie? I thought that was a hyphen. Is using too many hyphens wrong? I use them a lot. But so does he. I don't really like him. Is this bad?"
That is when I started researching dashes and their uses. I found out that there are three dashes: the en, the em, and the hyphen.
I learned about em dashes through reading (clearly that classmate of mine didn't read...hmm...). I saw them in books, decided I liked them, and then used them. At first I spaced out the dashes.
My classmate — whose name I will not mention — probably actually did read.
Then I noticed that some authors put the dashes up against the text.
My classmate--whose name I still won't mention--probably just didn't like my writing.
Research tells me that putting spaces between the words and the dash is WRONG! Okay, research. So the second example, not the first, is correct.
Essentially, the em dash is used as an interjection in a sentence--a thought break, or further clarification. The dash can be inserted between a continuing thought--in a manner like this--or it can be added to the end of the sentence--sort of like an afterthought.
It is important to get the structure of the dash right so that it won't be confused with an en dash or a hyphen. If you are on Word, you simply type your sentence--type two dashes where you want the break--and end with two more dashes. Weebly doesn't automatically elongate the dash, but Word will.
The em dash, much like -ly adverbs, colons, dialogue tags, and a whole host of other syntax/grammatical things, can be overused. Some people believe the em dash should be eradicated from any writer's usage. The trick is to know when to use them, and to know when not to use them. I thought this article was very funny and also very true. If you can get through the article without your eyes twitching, you might learn something.
En dashes are easier to understand and use. An en dash is simply the structural way to express "through" or "until." For example, the Christmas season actually lasts from December 25th–January 13th. You also use the en dash for page numbers, if you want your students to read pages 1–394. Which might take them awhile.
On Word, you can insert the symbol for the en dash (which you can also do for the em dash). I haven't figured out an easy way to type the en dash; I have to type out December 25th -- January 13th, and then Word turns the two hyphens into the en dash. And, since the en dash also can't be spaced out from the text, I have to go back and delete the spaces.
The hyphen is the symbol we all know. It is the shortest of the dashes. Compound words are hyphenated, like ill-advised or well-being. So are our Social Security and phone numbers. My SS is 123-45-6789. My phone number is 098-765-4321. You should call me and see what happens. Typing a hyphen is easy. You just type it out. You don't need to worry about creating or deleting spaces between the words.
--This concludes my very exciting piece on dashes. Take them or leave them--just don't misuse them!