If you’re not using em dashes in your writing, you’re missing out on a very versatile punctuation that can replace commas, parentheses, or colons—not to mention they look pretty cool, too.
Longer than an en dash and three times longer than a hyphen, the em dash (—) is named for its length, as it’s roughly the width of the capital letter M. (Likewise, the en dash is about the length of an N).
By learning when and how to properly use the em dash, you can bring added clarity and style to your work.
When to Use an Em Dash
An em dash (or em dashes) can be used in a number of situations to increase clarity or give emphasis to certain words.
To Include Parenthetical Information
Em dashes are often used to include parenthetical information within sentences, since they put more emphasis on the information in between.
In this case, two em dashes are needed—but avoid using more than two em dashes per sentence, as this can result in more confusion than clarification.
I saw Dr. Smith—our family dentist—at the supermarket today.
Note that this sentence could also be written using commas:
I saw Dr. Smith, our family dentist, at the supermarket today.
Or with parentheses:
I saw Dr. Smith (our family dentist) at the supermarket today.
Greta rose early—as she did every morning—and prepared breakfast for her husband.
Things just weren’t the same without Silvano—our cheerful, singing neighbor—to watch over the neighborhood.
Tina had to admit—even if she hated to—that Mark had been right all along.
To Set Apart Appositives Containing Commas
Appositives are bits of extra information that are added into a sentence for clarification or elaboration.
Commas are usually used to indicate appositives, but if an appositive itself contains commas, the sentence can get confusing.
Using two em dashes can alleviate the problem.
The three of us—my mother, father, and I—left early this morning for the airport.
The four styles of writing—expository, descriptive, narrative, and persuasive—are usually taught to students in grade school.
If you have any questions, call my sister—Anna, not Sarah—and she’ll be able to help you.
To Highlight a List
When a sentence begins with a list, an em dash is better suited for separating the list than a colon.
This helps to focus multiple items into one idea, and it’s also easier for readers to comprehend.
Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris—some of the best white wines come from the Alsace region of France.
Wine, roses, chocolate—all see a sharp rise in sales when Valentine’s Day rolls around.
Dogs, cats, horses—Kelly loved all animals, as one could easily see upon entering her backyard.
To Indicate an Interruption or Change in Thought
Particularly useful when writing dialogue, an em dash can be used to indicate interjections or changes in thought mid-sentence.
This technique is best used in creative or informal writing.
As I was saying—Katie, no, put the scissors down!—kids can be quite the handful.
Now, what was I looking for—oh, right! My prescription.
How to Type an Em Dash
There are several different ways to form an em dash using codes.
Em Dash Alt Code
To quickly form an em dash using your Mac, simultaneously hold the Shift, Option, and Minus keys.
On your PC, hold down the Alt key while typing 0151.
(*Note that only the numbers on the right hand keypad can be used to achieve this, not the numbers above the letters.)
In Microsoft Word, you can also type two consecutive hyphens (–) and Word should automatically convert this to an em dash.
The html codes for the em dash are “—”or “—“.
U+2014 is the unicode value for the em dash.
Copy and Paste
If you don’t feel like messing with codes, you can always copy and paste an em dash from Microsoft Word or the Internet.
Use Em Dashes For Clarity and Style
Em dashes can bring both clarity and style to all types of writing.
Once you learn how to use this versatile little tool, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it.
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