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The Em-Dash

April 29, 2014

Wait—What the Heck is an Em-dash?

by: Miles Britton

2-dashes

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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