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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

The Common Application has an em dash dilemma

Shaan Sridhar
The Common Application counts em dashes in word count differently than other word processors.

I love the em dash — a lot.

I’ve used it nearly all of my college essays, multiple times. I love to use them in stories I write for The Falcon — in fact, I encourage all respected English writers to use it as well.

But I wrote my essays in Microsoft Word, checking the word count there as well. So, when I pasted my essays into the Common Application, I discovered a travesty: With spaces, em dashes add an entire “word” to the word count, but without, they can actually help reduce word count.

Someone’s got to fix this.

My natural tendency is to use the punctuation mark the way The Falcon and Associated Press style use it: with a space on either side of the dash. I’ve had lengthy discussions about what constitutes a word — if you’re in AP English Language & Composition, you know what I’m talking about — but I think it’s safe to say that the em dash isn’t a word. 

Yet when you enter the em dash into the Common Application with a space on each side, it counts it as a full word. Why? Because apparently any characters with spaces on both sides are counted as words in the Common Application (whoever programmed this has a lot of explaining to do, especially when other word counters don’t make this basic mistake).

But lo and behold: This leads to a clever hack. If you remove the space (for example, “beginning—phrase—end”), the three words connected by the em dash only count for one word. WHAT? They’re clearly two words, but the Common Application lacks the ability to make this distinction. So, as any try-hard student would, I removed the spaces around my em dashes throughout all my essays, saving a whopping 14 words on my personal statement.

But I had to make a sacrifice in order to achieve this hack: There are many who have firm convictions about whether there should be extra spaces or not, and many who are reluctant to compromise (for the record, both are grammatically correct). I prefer to use the extra spaces, but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice words for the spaces — I shouldn’t be forced to make this decision.

The Common Application is trying to spark an unnecessary argument among us supporters of the em dash through this insane word count methodology. But there’s a simple fix: The Common Application should use the word counting methodology that every other major word processor uses. You know, the one that knows what is actually a separate word and what isn’t.

So, yes, this is a huge issue, even if it seems trivial. And it needs to be fixed. The Class of ‘24 may not be as forgiving as us.

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