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The Em Dash and How to Use It Correctly

How to use the em dash.

Do you use em dashes? Do you know what an em dash is? If you do, you’re in good company. Lots of writers use em dashes—a lot. I definitely do—sometimes more than I should.

And because too many em dashes detract from effectiveness—plus look sloppy and unprofessional—if I have more than one or two on a page (about every 250 words or so), I decide which are truly useful—and which can be ditched.

Now there’s a case of em dash overload. Take a look at that opening paragraph again. And the parentheses don’t help matters either.

All em dashes can be ditched, to tell you the truth. They just aren’t necessary in a piece of polished writing. They’re an embellishment, a tool, a piece of garland on the tree.

But used skillfully, they add emphasis, rhythm, and voice the way no other punctuation mark can.

Let’s get clear on what an em dash is.

An em dash is a straight, horizontal line positioned about halfway between the bottom and top of a lower-case letter. It looks like this:  — 

It’s called an em dash because its width is about the same as a lower-case letter em (m).

What an em dash is not

An em dash is not an en dash. An en dash is a dash that’s about half the length of an em dash. It’s approximately the width of the lower case letter en (n not m). Here’s an en dash: –

An em dash isn’t a hyphen, either. Or even two hyphens. A hyphen is a teensy weensy little dash that’s typically used to join words.

Rules for em dashes in writing

Let’s compare em dashes with hyphens and en dashes.

A hyphen connects words that are closely related as a single concept and words that function as compound adjectives or joint modifiers. A hyphen is also used to connect a prefix with a word.

Compound words (a single concept): great-grandmother, merry-go-round, free-for-all, front-runner. 

Compound adjectives: red-hot (lava), run-down (shed), up-to-date (vaccines)

Prefix: re-covering (a sofa, for example, not recovering from an illness), pre-kindergarten, ex-wife, co-owner

Hyphens are used for other purposes as well; this isn’t intended as a full discussion. Here’s a good list of hyphenated words, but always check with your preferred dictionary. I use Merriam-Webster.

An en dash is used to connect items related by distance. It’s not often used by the average blog writer, but you’ll see it in The New York Times and other professional publications or books with editors who are careful with standard usage. 

Dates: 1920–1996, February 3–April 16

Time: 8:30 a.m.–1:00 p.m.

Magazine issues or regular events and occurrences: June–December (includes each month’s issue or an event starting with June and ending with December)

Planes and trains: the Philadelphia–New York City train, the Frankfurt–Rome flight

The en dash has other uses; check your preferred style guide such as The Chicago Manual of Style  or the AP Stylebook.

Here’s what the em dash is all about.

The em dash is used to set off a sudden shift of thought. It’s often an explanation that replaces parentheses, especially when you want to emphasize abruptness. It can also replace commas, a colon, or a semi-colon.

A few examples:

She bravely led the way—though her voice trembled and her hands shook—and we finally arrived safely.

Her skirt wasn’t short—it was non-existent.

He controlled his anger—barely—and gave her the money.

The em dash can also be used to set off an introductory clause or word when it’s followed by a pronoun that introduces a main clause.

Examples:

Flattery—that was the main technique he used to get information from a witness.

Lying, cheating, and running around—these were not typical behaviors.

Barraged with insults, held at gunpoint, threatened with a knife—nothing could stop her.

An em dash is also used in dialogue to show a break in thought that’s abrupt (rather than a trailing thought that gets an ellipsis).

“She told me you—” Patrice gasped when Angelina entered the room.

“Yes, he did—of course he did—but you know better than to repeat my words, Patrice,” Angelina said as her heels clicked on the wood floor.

An em dash can also be used with dialogue to interject action or other details.

“This isn’t the first time Brian has broken a promise”—she rolled her eyes—”and I’m sure it won’t be the last.”

The 2-em dash can be used to replace a missing word such as an expletive that may be offensive in writing that otherwise contains no such language.

“What the —— are you talking about?” his father roared.

Two em dashes can also replace a name when it’s unknown or intentionally disguised in works of fiction.

Mr. —— greeted us at the door.

Lady —— and her servant fueled the already heated gossip among the townspeople.

Veronica A— was hastily invited to the ball at the last minute.

Use an em dash with an exclamation point or question mark, but not with a comma, a colon, or a semi-colon (and only rarely with a period).

If only I could have saved him—if only!—he’d still be alive.

I wasn’t sure if I could—did I dare?—but if I didn’t try, I’d never know.

These are the most common ways to use an em dash; others are generally limited to academic writing.

What about spaces before and after an em dash?

Whether or not you surround an em dash with spaces or not depends on which style guide you follow. AP Stylebook calls for spaces. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) does not.

Or it can simply be a matter of personal taste. Here’s a comparison.

Spaces: She hurried back to the house — she wouldn’t find the answer in the garden.
No spaces: She hurried back to the house—she wouldn’t find the answer in the garden.

 I prefer no spaces, and not just because I follow CMOS. I think the spaces create too much of a gap and make the eyes work too hard to get from one word to the next. The writing itself then distracts readers from the message by drawing attention to the style. Plus, with spaces around the em dash, text may automatically break at the end of a sentence (as in a blog post), and the next line will start with an em dash. That can be confusing.

How to create an em dash

The main reason for incorrectly using a hyphen or double hyphen instead of an em dash is that many writers just don’t know how to create an em dash since it’s not on keyboards. Here’s how you do it.

Mac:
Keyboard: Alt/Option + Shift + Hyphen
Menu: Edit > Special Characters  > Punctuation > Em Dash 

Windows:
Keyboard: Alt+Ctrl+ – (minus on num pad)

Alt+ 0151

Autoformat: type a word, then two hyphens together, then another word. When you click the space bar, the hyphens become an em dash. 

Menu: Insert > Symbols > Special Characters > Em Dash

If none of these work for you, just google “keyboard shortcut for em dash Windows (or Word, Word 2016, Mac, Mac Pages, iOS, and so on). If you know of another way, please share in the comments!

~~~

Em dashes are great. They provide variety to your sentence structure plus add style to your writing. But be careful to use them thoughtfully. They don’t add much—if you use them carelessly—as I’m doing in this sentence. But they can add a punch or stress a point when used in just the right spot.

Remember—don’t substitute a hyphen or two hyphens for an em dash. Be professional. Use the correct punctuation mark and, if you can’t create an em dash for some reason, just skip it. You’re better off.

Do you know how to create an em dash in a different way or on a different OS? Please share! Questions and comments are always welcome.

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14 comments… add one
  • Thanks a lot, Leah. My writing will be full of dash-es as of tomorrow.

    Reply
  • Hi Leah,
    I create flyers announcing events at a retirement community. The flyers then go up in all the elevators and on bulletin boards around the building. Do all of the same rules of punctuation, capitalizing, grammar, complete sentences, etc…apply to flyers or is there a little flexibility in order to emphasize certain details with flyers?
    Thanks, Lori

    Reply
    • Hi Lori,

      Great question. The same rules apply to flyers—in general—but you can be flexible. Ad copy—the snappy little slogans in ads and on flyers and so on—can break some rules effectively. Sentence fragments can be used, for example: “Renew now!” or “Social night every Sunday.” But you should avoid things like using quotation marks to place emphasis on words; try using bold or a different color instead. And sure, grammar matters. Spelling, too. Typos and careless errors like they’re/there/their are so easy to make, so proof carefully.

      Best bet is to study other flyers (anywhere you find them) and decide what works and what doesn’t or which ones are breaking rules and look sloppy. Study ads in reputable publications. Headlines, too. While waiting in a grocery store check-out aisle, flip through the magazines and focus on ads. What rules are they breaking? How well does it work?

      Flyers, signs, notices, and so on with grammatical or punctuation mistakes often go viral in fussy editor or writer circles. People take pics of mistakes and post them—I see it all the time. Hope this helps! I should make this subject a blog post 🙂

      Reply
      • Thanks Leah!
        Lori

        Reply
  • Nice post on em dash, learnt so many new usage and how to create in on window.

    Reply
  • Thanks for this useful and important information Leah. I am one of those people who must keep a close rein on dots (aka ellipses) and dashes lest my writing resemble Morse code. I especially appreciate the definitive info on spaces before and after m-dashes. Do you plan a post on ellipses next?
    Sharon Lippincott recently posted…Start the New Year WriteMy Profile

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Sharon! Glad the bit on spaces is helpful. Consistency is the most important thing. And I’m the same way with the dots when it’s casual writing to friends or on Facebook (and my editor cap is off).

      Here’s a post on ellipses from earlier this year. Hope it helps! Dots and dashes can definitely be confusing.
      http://simplewriting.org/ellipses-ellipsis-suspension-points/

      Reply
  • I came by way of Sharon Lippincott and I’m glad I did. This post was incredibly helpful, thank you.

    Reply
    • Nice to see you here, Laurie! I’m so glad the post was helpful. Stay tuned for more and look around a bit 🙂

      Reply
  • would love to see PC and Mac keystrokes for en and em dashes. most don’t know those.

    Reply
  • I appreciate that you note AP Style embraces using spaces on either side of the emdash. However, use of spaces to offset the punctuation is not mere preference. It is essential to correct grammar (although many editors and typesetters may be aghast at such a claim). Quite simply, I think many miss the words for the typography. Without offsetting the emdash with spaces, the punctuation can readily be mistaken for a hyphen. You force a reader to distinguish between two (technically three if you include the endash) pieces of punctuation based solely on their tiny differences of width. While it is true that context can help a reader discern a hyphen from an emdash, is not the whole point of grammar and typography to minimize such mental gymnastics? The hyphen is used to create one word out of two or more words or two lines. Hence, we don’t put spaces around it as a way of visually conveying such a connection. The hyphen is, in fact, part of the word. However, the typical use of the emdash is quite the opposite. It injects a completely different thought within an existing one. It’s not part of a word. It denotes a sudden transition between two distinct thoughts. I realize that in the face of today’s grammatical fundamentalism, which so readily justifies its vilification of any progressive styling by quoting the CMOS, that it can be hard to embrace alternatives, but I ask you stand on the right side of punctuation history. Resist those CMOS-thumping purists, and join the movement to give to the emdash its proper space!

    Reply
    • The style used for an em dash is dependent on whether the publication you’re writing for requires AP style (spaces around em dash), CMOS style (no spaces), APA style (no spaces), MLA style (no spaces), AMA (no spaces), and so on. AP style (used in journalism) is the only style that uses spaces around an em dash. There’s no right or wrong; it depends on the style used for a particular publication or purpose.

      Language is always changing. Punctuation of any kind is relatively new to written language, in this case English. And I’m talking about American English as used in the US without even considering em dash usage in the UK, Australia, NZ, and so on.

      Reply

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