Welcome to the latest edition of Above the Law’s Grammer Pole of the Weak, a column where we turn questions of legal writing and English grammar and usage over to our readers for discussion and debate.

Last week, we discovered that our readers’ preference for using pled over pleaded as the past tense of the verb plead hasn’t changed too drastically since 2008: 57% of lawyers still prefer to use pled. So much for members of this profession being sticklers for rules, grammatical or otherwise, eh?

This week, we’ll be turning to a question of spacing. We’ve already dealt with sentence spacing — specifically, whether one space or two should be used between sentences — but today, we’re going to take a look at the em dash. Should you be using a space before and after an em dash?

Before we get to the spacing question, we’ll tell you what an em dash is and how it’s supposed to be used (because hey, not everyone knows this stuff). Grammar Book tells us:

An em dash is the width of an m. Use an em dash sparingly in formal writing. In informal writing, em dashes may replace commas, semicolons, colons, and parentheses to indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought.

So now that we know the basics, we’ll get to the question that our readers have been asking us about: should spaces be used before and after an em dash? We consulted with Grammar Girl for the answer:

Every style guide I checked, except the AP Stylebook, stated there should be no spaces between an em-dash and the adjacent words. That means it is a style choice. If you’re writing for a newspaper, magazine, or website that uses Associated Press style, put in the spaces. Otherwise, leave them out.

We usually don’t agree with those AP Stylebook heathens, but em dash spacing really is a style issue. Here at Above the Law, we prefer using a space before and after our em dashes — it’s less visually disruptive.

But readers, we’d like to know what you think. Do you dare defy the Chicago Manual of Style and put spaces before and after your em dashes? Let us know in our poll:

Should you use a space before and after an em dash?

  • Yes — it looks better this way. (51%, 787 Votes)
  • No—it looks better this way. (49%, 769 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,555

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Dashes [Grammar Book]
Em Dash Space [Grammar Girl]

Earlier: Prior Grammer Poles of the Weak


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