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.
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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 Times, or 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.
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.
The Atlanta–Chicago flight
The north–south highway
Anytime you describe a range, score, or conflict, an en dash is appropriate.
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.
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Kari Lisa Johnson
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.