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Is there a particular significance to the use of это after a dash? For instance, I think Москва — столица России or Москва — это столица России mean the same thing. But I don't know the point of inserting это there. (In English it is wrong to stick "this is" in the middle of a sentence like that, saying "Moscow this is the capital of Russia".)

More generally, what is the distinction in meaning between А — Б, А — это Б?

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  • это means it here, not this. Moscow - it is the capital if Russia. – Anixx Dec 30 '14 at 0:25
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Generally a dash is used here just as so called copula is used in English. So your guess is right, dash here is a some kind of punctuational copula, therefore can be translated as "is".

Though — это is indeed another form of such copula, there is a subtle difference between usage of these two forms. Roughly speaking, pure punctuational form is more universal, you can use it in a wider set of cases.

You can say, for example:

Вы — подлец!

But this phrase will sound definitely unnatural to native speaker:

Вы — это подлец.

So, with personal pronouns usage of это is untypical.

As for me, it is very difficult to describe exact rules for choosing one these forms, but here is a rule of thumb that can give you a hint. If you can imagine the phrase used in some kind of dictionary as an article, for example:

  • Париж — столица Франции.
  • Слон — млекопитающее.
  • Солнце — звезда.

then you can use — это form.

Also, when you want to emphasise the second part of phrase, you can use это. So, when you can imagine this very phrase used with some adjective, it looks like you cane use - это form:

Пётр — [это] [ужасный] негодяй.

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  • 1
    Тире обычно не ставится, если подлежащее выражено личным местоимением, а сказуемое – именительным падежом существительного. rosental.virtbox.ru/punct_xxi.html § 79.8 – КуЪ Mar 29 '13 at 14:11
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    @КуЪ - спасибо за ссылку, но вопрос не об этом и ответ не об этом :) Понятное дело, что тире - интонационное. – shabunc Mar 29 '13 at 14:13
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More generally, what is the distinction in meaning between А — Б, А — это Б?

@shabunc showed in his answer that not every A — B sentence can be used with это

When это is actually used there's, AFAIK, no practical difference in written form. But there is a difference in spoken language where это is a way to "pronounce" dash. Note, that actual verb in this sentences is omitted (in English, you would expect is/are somewhere) and without это meaning may become unclear. For example, these sentences:

Музыка — радость!
Кирпичный завод — рабочие места, жилье и инвестиции

when used without context/great dramatic skills may sound unclear. Here это helps to clarify the meaning:

Музыка — это радость!
Кирпичный завод — это рабочие места, жилье и инвестиции

You can safely use well-known phrases and obvious statements without это, for example:

Время — деньги.
Знание — сила!
Волк — хищник!
Москва — столица России

Side note: wiktionary entry on это mentions five different meanings. In this particular case это is a particle and not really equivalent to this [is].

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  • Do you know if this usage of это, to avoid confusion, is comparatively recent or has it been in use for a long time? – KCd Mar 30 '13 at 4:52
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    @KCd I'm not a linguist, but I don't think it's recent. Actually, I believe that A — B is a version with это omitted. – default locale Mar 30 '13 at 17:58
  • @KCd It is quite old. As for the difference in use, there is one structure where "это" is obligatory: «Водка — это отлично» / «История — это очень интересно». Note that here, «отлично» and «интересно» do not agree with a subject, so if you omit это, the sentence does not hold together. – Shady_arc Dec 28 '14 at 18:08
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Москва - столица России

This means your addressee knows Moscow, you just add something to it or underline this property.

Москва - это столица России

This means you introduce new term, Moscow, which was prevuously unknown to your addressee, and define it as the capital of Russia.

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  • An addition for a questioner: think about ... — это ... like about a vocabulary-like definition. – Arhadthedev Jan 18 '19 at 6:43

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