The Case of the Missing “Em Dash”

This is a photo of a detective holding a magnifying glass.A client recently sent us an SOS from their outside proofreader—a very detail-oriented professional—who noticed that our Spanish translation did not contain the same number of “em dashes” as the English source text.

Were these missing em dashes an error on our part? After some research, we found that em dashes have different functions in Spanish. What looked wrong was actually proper usage.

While everyone knows how to use a hyphen (-), both the longer en dash (–) and even longer em dash (—) are not as well known.

In English, the em dash:

• indicates that a sentence is unfinished
(“I sense something; a presence I have not felt since—”)

• achieves emphasis
(“Here is where all the trouble begins—in the American confidence that technology is the ultimate medicine for all ills.”)

• replaces parenthesis when providing collateral information
(“Call Mike Habib—he’s with Jax Electronics—and get his opinion.”)

In contrast, the em dash in Spanish:

• indicates the beginning of dialog and separates the speaker from the spoken text
(—Yes—responded the secretary—, but we can’t tell him the entire truth.)

• indicates component elements, such as:

Discounts on:

—household items, etc.

The Spanish em dash is also used to replace parenthesis when providing collateral information such as: “He took his loyalty to his professor —a very good professor— to the extreme.” And note the space before the initial em dash and after the concluding em dash in Spanish.

As we concluded our research, we learned that an unfinished thought in Spanish is commonly noted with the ellipses (…) rather than an em dash.

To emphasize a thought, a Spanish writer might use a colon instead of the em dash (“Here is where all the trouble begins: in the American confidence that…”). Finally, providing collateral information with em dashes in both English and Spanish can also be accomplished by using parenthesis.

Conclusion: Don’t expect exact correspondence in the use of the em dash between the original English and the target Spanish documents. Syntax and grammar can vary greatly from one language to the next, so it’s only natural that punctuation will differ as well.

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