Ah, the ever-elusive em dash. It’s a punctuation mark that is so effective—yet it’s one so many people are afraid to use (or have never even heard of). After turning in my copy to clients, I often get asked “What’s that long dash you’re using? I love it!”
To be honest, I went back and forth on whether I should further confirm my geekiness by deep-diving into the topic of em dashes on my blog—because, really, who gets that excited about punctuation? But the answer is, I DO—and for good reason. The smallest punctuation changes can ultimately make the biggest impact on screen. So, let’s get right to it. Read on for all you need to know about this small-but-mighty punctuation mark.
I thought you’d never ask. An em dash is a long dash (like this one: —) that can be used in place of parentheses, commas, semicolons, or colons. It’s name comes from the fact it’s the width of an uppercase M. (Drop that fun-fact at your next cocktail party.)
Just like a comma, an em dash works to set certain words in a sentence apart from others, indicating a powerful pause. You can use one in any number of ways, including:
In pairs to visually enclose a word, phrase, clause, or aside—ahem, like this one—just like you’d use parentheses for a parenthetical aside
To detach one end of a sentence from the main body of the sentence—like I’m doing here
In place of a comma, colon, or semicolon to connect two sentences or ideas—however, avoid using more than two per sentence
To create a strong break in the structure of a sentence or emphasize a particular clause—because, sometimes, you just need your reader to pause and ponder a specific portion of your sentence
There should be no space on either side of an em dash. Your words should back right up against your dash—like this. You should also stick to no more than two em dashes per sentence.
PRO TIP: Em dashes make far more impact when used sparingly. Use them when you really want the reader to pause on a certain thought, or when you really need to set apart a certain clause for maximum effect.
PRO TIP: Don’t confuse the em dash with the en dash (did I just blow your mind?). The en dash is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash. It looks like this: — and it is used to represent a span of numbers, dates, or time. (Its name comes from the fact it’s as wide as an uppercase N. Mark that down as a second fun-fact for your cocktail party.)
To generate an em dash in Word, simply hit the minus key twice, and then hit the spacebar, and—voila!—the two dashes will turn into one long em dash. I feel like this is leading me into a “When two dashes love each other…” bit.
PRO TIP: Not all programs automatically give you an em dash when you type two minus signs (or hyphens). iMessages and Microsoft Word both do—Google docs, though, doesn’t (at least as of yet—maybe they’ll change their minds once they read this post. Who knows?). If I’m working on a platform that doesn’t auto-generate an em dash, I simply use two hyphens throughout the doc (like this — ) wherever I want an em dash. Then, once I’m done writing, I go back through and do a “find and replace.” You can also use the following keyboard shortcuts:
To generate an em dash on a Mac: option + shift + the hyphen key
To generate an em dash on a PC: hold down alt+0151 (only the numbers on the numeric keypad work for this—not the numbers above the letters on your keyboard)
The most versatile punctuation mark there is and my go-to solution for lightening up sentences that are overladen with commas, I am a thorough believer the em dash is one of the best things to happen to the English language. If I liked sliced bread, I might even go so far as to say the em dash is the best thing since sliced bread—but, as a writer, I naturally hate clichés, and, as an Italian, I prefer my bread come in massive, unsliced, fresh-baked loaves…so we’ll scrap that one for now.
The em dash can take your writing from everyday “ehh” to super sophisticated. It indicates you’re a strong writer who has a firm grasp on punctuation—and who knows how to use it to her advantage.
Keep in mind, though, just because the em dash is a sophisticated punctuation mark doesn’t mean it’s too “highbrow” or inaccessible for the everyday reader. Great punctuation is like gravity: your reader doesn’t have to understand why it works well for it to work. While your reader may not know the exact name of the punctuation mark they’re looking at, it will still work to visually break up your content and emphasize the area you want it to—regardless of the reader’s knowledge of (or lack of knowledge of) the punctuation mark itself.
This mighty mark is particularly great for business owners developing website copy who want to give a little extra “punch” to their content or emphasize playful portions of a sentence. Rather than saying “Our secret family recipe makes for the best barbecue in town, and we aren’t about to spill the beans,” you can change that comma to an em dash, making the second part of the sentence so much more punchy: “Our secret family recipe makes for the best barbecue in town—and we aren’t about to spill the beans.”
It’s a small punctuation swap that makes a big difference on screen, which, when it comes down to it, is really what the em dash is all about: a small mark with a mighty impact.