Em Dash: What Is It, When to Use It, and Why?

Em Dash: What Is It, When to Use It, and Why?

Few punctuation marks have the spunky personality of an em dash. The length of an em dash comes from width of a traditional typesetter’s capital letter M—that’s how the dash gets its name. Em dashes can replace parentheses, commas, colons, and even semi-colons. Although they’re often compared to en dashes and hyphens, em dashes have more applications than almost any other special character. For this reason, be cautious about overusing the em dash. This punctuation mark can be stylish and strong, adding variety to your syntax, as long as you remember to use it sparingly.

Your writing, at its best

Compose bold, clear, mistake-free writing with Grammarly's AI-powered writing assistant

How do you type an em dash?

In order to use em dashes, you’ll first need to know how to type them. Unfortunately, there’s no em dash key on a standard keyboard. Instead, you’ll have to use a keyboard shortcut:

On a Mac, type alt/option + shift + dash (-).

On a PC, type alt + ctrl + minus sign (–). The minus sign can be found on the numeric keypad to the right of your keyboard. 

If you’re using a word processor, like Microsoft Word, you can also type double hyphens next to each other to produce an em dash. 

Examples of Sentences with Em Dashes

Use em dashes to identify a parenthetical clause (an inessential phrase that adds information) in a sentence.

Use em dashes to identify a parenthetical clause—an inessential phrase that adds information—in a sentence.

An em dash can replace an ellipsis…or do you disagree?

An em dash can replace an ellipsis—or do you disagree?

Sometimes, writers use em dashes in the place of commas, as a way to add emphasis.

Sometimes, writers use em dashes in the place of commas—as a way to add emphasis. 

“In dialogue, an em dash can be used at the end of a sentence to indicate an abrupt interruption.” 

“In dialogue, an em dash can be used at the end of a sentence to indicate an abrupt interruption—”

Semicolons work well; however, em dashes seem less formal.

Semicolons work well—however, em dashes seem less formal.

“If you’re interrupting dialogue with action…” we gesture to the quotation marks “…use an em dash here and here.”

“If you’re interrupting dialogue with action”—we gesture to the quotation marks—”use an em dash here and here.”

When you have appositives with commas, like descriptions, lists, or lengthy phrases, an em dash helps to set them apart.

When you have appositives with commas—like descriptions, lists, or lengthy phrases—an em dash helps to set them apart. 

Additional Uses for the Em Dash

Three em dashes appear in bibliographies, when an author’s name is repeated. 

———. Grammar Rules. New York: Fancy Publisher. 2019.

Two em dashes may signify a curse word or a censored character’s name.

Miss —— doesn’t like it when people say ——. 

Anytime an author introduces an abrupt change or exclamation, an em dash would be an appropriate choice. 

She was walking slowly—wait!—in the wrong direction.  

Em Dash vs. En Dash vs. Hyphen

Unlike an em dash, an en dash has a smaller number of appropriate uses. 

Although most informal publications don’t use en dashes, you might see them in major newspapers, such as The New York Timesor in research periodicals. Anywhere formal typography appears, an en dash might pop up.

En dashes can be used to separate a date range or span of time. 

Examples:

2009–2019

April 5–June 4

7 p.m.–8:30 p.m.

The August–September issue of a magazine

When you describe a flight or itinerary, you can use an en dash. 

Examples:

The Atlanta–Chicago flight

The north–south highway

Anytime you describe a range, score, or conflict, an en dash is appropriate. 

Examples:

Chapters 1–2

The 24–5 basketball game

The Israeli–Palestinian conflict

There are other common uses for en dashes. Some style guides recommend using en dashes for compound words, such as merry–go–round and family–run. Others suggest a hyphen would be better. Open compound words, like dinner party and coffee mug, don’t require dashes at all. Be sure to check your favorite style manual to see whether you need a hyphen or an en dash for compound words. No matter what, be sure to always use the same types of dashes in your compound words to be consistent. 

Why use an em dash?

Different stylebooks have different recommendations for how to use an em dash. For instance, some guides suggest leaving spaces on either side of the em dash — like this. As long as you keep things consistent, you can choose the presentation you like best. The em dash offers writers the freedom to make all kinds of choices, beyond spacing. That’s why you should familiarize yourself with this punctuation mark. 

When you use an em dash, you communicate a sharp turn of direction. No other punctuation (aside from a period) offers such a clear visual indication that the reader can expect the unexpected. It’s a great way to signify an interruption. Also, an em dash keeps a sentence from becoming weighed down with too many commas. Em dashes can be used in everything from emails to formal papers. Just be sure to keep the total number of em dashes you use to 1–2 instances per page. For maximum impact, use an em dash where it can clarify your meaning or add rhythm to your writing. 

Sources:

  1. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dash
  2. http://simplewriting.org/em-dash-and-how-to-use-it-correctly/
  3. https://thewritepractice.com/what-the-heck-is-an-em-dash/

The Word Counter is a dynamic online tool used for counting words, characters, sentences, paragraphs, and pages in real time, along with spelling and grammar checking.

x