What Is an Em Dash:
An em dash (—) is longer than a hypen (-) and an en dash (–). To create an em dash, you press alt 0151. If this shortcut doesn’t work, you can also create the em dash by typing a word/letter, two hyphens, and then a word/letter without any spaces. Example: “see,” two hyphens, “this” will give you see—this. If you want spaces around your em dash, you just go in and insert spaces.
This is a much-beloved punctuation mark. In my editor chat groups, many mention their love for the very versatile em dash. There are even several memes showcasing this love.
Em dashes are stylistic marks as they aren’t generally required for correct punctuation; instead, they are used as a choice. I can only think of one instance where it is a “required” punctuation mark. I have marked that one as a “rule”; the rest are marked “choice.”
However, just like all things—make sure you don’t use them too often or they will lose their effect.
When You Can Use an Em Dash:
Rule: Use to indicate speech that has been interrupted either by someone else or by the speaker themselves
- “You just haven’t been listening. I told you—”“No, you aren’t listening to me.”
- “Why did she—oh never mind, it doesn’t matter.”
Choice: Use for an action beat that comes in the middle of dialogue
- “Wait! I need”—Mark looked down and cleared his throat—“um, well, here, you forgot this.”
- Note: Using commas instead of the em dash would be incorrect here; however, one could make them separate sentences: “Wait! I need . . .” Mark looked down and cleared his throat. “Um, well, here, you forgot this.”
Choice: Use an em dash instead of commas or parenthesis in a parenthetical element to put more emphasis on the parenthetical phrase
- My son is now a chunker—nearly in the 90 percentile—so you wouldn’t know by looking at him that he used to be failure to thrive.
- Note: General rule of thumb: parenthesis indicate more of an aside, clarification, or commentary on a topic in the sentence; commas are used when the information is part of the natural flow of the sentence but doesn’t need to be emphasized; em dashes put more emphasis on the parenthetical information, causing it to stand out more.
Choice: Use to set off a modifying phrase that already contains commas
- If you need to get a hold of me quickly, try email first—my work email, not my personal one—and I’m more likely to see it sooner than a text.
- Note: This could have been set off in dashes because I wanted to emphasize it, which makes sense. After all, it would be important to emphasize which account. However, in constructions like this, an author can opt to use dashes, not because they want to emphasize the parenthetical element but because the sentence already contains several commas, so a dash prevents too many commas in a row and aids the readability of the sentence.
- Many jobs interest me—teaching, editing, public speaking, and tutoring.
- There was a clear reason for a drop in attendance at NBA games this season—there was no superstar to take the place of Michael Jordan.
- Note: Usually one decides to use an em dash instead of a colon if one wants to place more emphasis on the part offset by the em dash.
Em dashes are a choice; however, for the purpose of practicing, put in em dashes anywhere where it makes sense. There is one sentence that I think an em dash would be the wrong choice; see if you can figure out which one.
- “Yes, I think we . . . Aden, don’t touch that. Sorry I need to go get my son.”
- Most of my family members, my brother, his wife, my sister, her husband, and my mom, came with us.
- Mark Alma Lunduqist, born in 1978, became the head doctor.
- Save the Cat is one of the few books, actually, the only book, you’ll ever need on craft.
- I bought several clothing items, all of which were on sale, since I have changed size.
- “Don’t you think.” Javier rubbed his eyes. “I mean, it’s what I would do.”
- Steve has one golden rule for dealing with money: “Never a borrower nor a lender be.”
- “Why do you think . . .” “Shhh. Don’t talk!”
- “Yes, I think we—Aden, don’t touch that. Sorry I need to go get my son.” (an em dash is the correct choice as the speaker isn’t trailing off; they are interrupting themselves)
- Most of my family members—my brother, his wife, my sister, her husband, and my mom—came with us. (since the parenthetical element contains commas, an em dash aids the readability)
- Mark Alma Lunduqist, born in 1978, became the head doctor. (No em dash. In fact, I would actually put this in parenthesis than commas because it is an aside. It certainly doesn’t need to be emphasized)
- Save the Cat is one of the few books—actually, the only book—you’ll ever need on craft. (This parenthetical element is important and author could opt to emphasize it with em dashes. It also contains internal commas, but only one, so I wouldn’t use em dashes here if the element didn’t need to be emphasized)
- I bought several clothing items—all of which were on sale—since I have changed size. (If one were speaking to a spouse who is concerned about the money being spent, it would make sense to emphasize this)
- “Don’t you think—Javier rubbed his eyes—I mean, it’s what I would do.”
- Steve has one golden rule for dealing with money—“Never a borrower nor a lender be.”
- “Why do you think—” “Shhh. Don’t talk!” (speaker is being interrupted, not trailing off, so an em dash is the correct choice)
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