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The Em-Dash

April 29, 2014

Wait—What the Heck is an Em-dash?

by: Miles Britton


You see it in just about everything these days—magazine articles, books, scholarly essays, not to mention right here in this sentence—but you might have never heard its name. It’s a called the em-dash. Thanks to its variety of uses, the em-dash has become the rising star of punctuation marks, and it’s one of the handiest tools in a writer’s tool box. But what exactly is it? And how do we use them?

First thing to know, an em-dash looks like this —. While it resembles its cousins the hyphen (-) and the en-dash (–), it’s actually quite different in both look and usage. An em-dash—as the name implies—is roughly the width of the letter “M,” so it’s about twice the length of a hyphen, and a tad longer than an en-dash (which is roughly the length of the letter “N”).

It’s easy to confuse the three, but they all have distinct roles to play in writing. A hyphen is generally used to join two or more words into one (think “eighteenth-century writer” or “80-year-old man”). An en-dash is traditionally used to connect a range of values, like August–September, pp 10–15, or 1–2pm (in common usage, a hyphen is often used instead).

The versatile em-dash, though, can play a few different roles, and it’s often used in place of commas, colons, semi-colons, and parentheses. So here’s a quick and dirty breakdown on when to use an em-dash properly:

● To make an aside, an abrupt change in thought, or a parenthetical statement with added emphasis:

Ex.: He got lost—he always gets lost—on his way to Boone.

Ex.: I love—really, really love—my dog.

● To mark a break or interruption in a sentence:

Ex.: I dashed to the car—dang, where are my keys!

Ex.: “Kevin, can you—” “I’m on it!” he yelled.

● To set off a list:

Ex.: I have three favorite hair-bands from the ‘80s—Motley Crue, Skid Row,
and Guns ‘n’ Roses.

As you’ve probably noticed, there is no em-dash button on your keyboard. But they’re easy to format. In Word, just type two hyphens (–) and then hit enter. On a lot of computers, you can also hit SHIFT + OPTION + HYPHEN. Otherwise, you can find them by inserting them as a special character.

Just remember, em-dashes are always written without spaces—meaning they touch the words directly before and after—in sentences. And, while they’re a great tool, it’s best to use em-dashes sparingly. Here’s a good article on why.

Happy em-dashing!

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