And now, another punctuation term that you probably have never heard before: the em dash.

Truthfully, I was ignorant of the em dash until Joe first approached me about a punctuation post.

So I did what any educated American would do and went straight to Wikipedia. (Remember encyclopedias? Those were the days.)

— What the Heck is an Em Dash —

Em Dash—Definition

Turns out the em dash (also known as an m dash, m-rule, or, in the grammatical slang circles, “mutton,” and I am not making that up) is just that extended dash you see when there is a break in narration or conversation.

You know the one:

Andy scanned the budgets on his desk, noting that Margot’s handwriting—and most of her work, in fact—was less than satisfactory.

Or, in a dialogue:

“Carl, I honestly don’t know why you—” “Stop, Lauren. I will put hot sauce on my pasta instead of marinara if I want to.”

What Em Dashes Do for Your Writing

Em dashes are a fun way to let the reader inside the head of the characters and get to know their personalities.

From the first example above, we’ve not only learned something about Margot, but also how Andy perceives her and her work.

Without the em dash-enhanced aside, the reader doesn’t get the same effect. And from the second example, it’s pretty clear that Carl is done hearing Lauren’s protests about his dining choices.

Em Dash Keyboard Shortcut

On Microsoft Word (and most other word processing systems), when you put two dashes next to each other (–), they combine to form an em dash.

However, on most web editors—Wordpress, Twitter, or Facebook for example—those two hyphens don’t magically become em-dashes.

Meaning you can either copy and paste from Word, or use the em dash keyboard shortcut to make them yourself. Fortunately, the em dash keyboard shortcut is incredibly fast and easy. I use it all the time:

alt/option + shift + dash (-)

Just hit alt/option + shift + dash (-) at the same time and you’ll get a beautifully long em-dash. Try it now in the comments form below. Isn’t that great?

Em Dash vs. En Dash vs. Hyphen

There are actually three different types of dashes, and it’s very easy to mix them up.

Not sure the difference between the three? Here’s a cheat sheet for the different types of dashes:

Types of Dashes: Em Dash vs En Dash vs Hypen

As you can see, the em dash is the longest of the three, and roughly the width of the letter m, which is how it got its name. (And yes, the en dash is named because it’s the width of the letter n.)

The em dash also acts as the longest stop or pause in a sentence compared to the other three dashes, which all serve to join parts of sentences rather than break up a sentence and stop the reader.

When To Avoid Em Dashes

 

Too much em dashing can stifle and break up a narrative flow at the expense of the story.

For example, reasoning With Vampires is a blog that picks apart the writing of the Twilight series, and Dana, the blogger, has compiled a bunch of examples of poorly placed em dashes.

As with dessert, wine, and Nikki Minaj concerts, moderation is the key.

More Punctation Resources

How about you? Do you enjoy using Em Dashes in your writing? Let me know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Write for fifteen minutes on the following writing prompt. Use em dashes to provide insight into the mind of the characters, or to show interruptions in dialogue.

Prompt: Ashley stared at Max, who was sitting in the middle of the disheveled living room.

When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers by commenting on whether they used the em dash correctly.

Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.