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What the Heck is an Em Dash?

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.

About 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.

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  • I was actually told recently by someone to use an m-dash during dialogue when someone interrupts someone else (i usually use …)

    However, i have just finished reading Started for Ten but David Nicholls and he uses … for someone getting interrupted.

    My poor head hurts with the contradictions the world always throw up 🙁

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  • Anonymous

    I was actually told recently by someone to use an m-dash during dialogue when someone interrupts someone else (i usually use …)

    However, i have just finished reading Started for Ten but David Nicholls and he uses … for someone getting interrupted.

    My poor head hurts with the contradictions the world always throw up 🙁

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  • I am quite the fan of em-dashes, though I can’t say that I knew what they were called before today! I hope the next post Liz does is about the en-dash! What’s the difference between them? Not that I haven’t just Googled it and found out… The juxtaposition is just an idea 🙂

  • I am quite the fan of em-dashes, though I can’t say that I knew what they were called before today! I hope the next post Liz does is about the en-dash! What’s the difference between them? Not that I haven’t just Googled it and found out… The juxtaposition is just an idea 🙂

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  • Love this blog usually, but that was a waste of time because you never actually told us anything about em dashes and the like.

    • What else would you like to know Matt? I thought Liz covered it pretty clearly.

  • Love this blog usually, but that was a waste of time because you never actually told us anything about em dashes and the like.

    • What else would you like to know Matt? I thought Liz covered it pretty clearly.

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  • “Max–what did you do?”
    Max stared up at Ashley with big brown eyes.
    Ashley picked her way through the room–books, papers, and other random stuff that she did not want to think about were strewn across the room. She made her way to Max. “How could you do this to me?”
    Max looked at her in the way that dogs did when they knew they were guilty. He got up and was about to turn to go into his crate.
    “Uh, uh, uh–you aren’t getting away so easily!”
    “Ashley, what happened?”
    The blonde girl whipped around, startled by the new voice. “Oh–Dan,” she stammered, her face flushing. “So how was your day?”
    “What–” Dan’s face was flushed. “What happened to my house?”
    “Um…” Ashley began in a whisper, “I can explain–”
    “I’ve seen enough,” Dan said coldly.
    “I didn’t even get to finish!” Ashley exclaimed.
    “I can SEE you standing there!” Dan snapped.
    “Wait, wait, so you assume–”
    “Don’t tell me what I assume, I know what I assume–”
    “Just because I was standing here, doesn’t mean I did it–”
    “Okay, what in the world is going on here?”
    Ashley gulped at the sound of her father’s eerily calm voice over their exploding argument.
    “Hi, Dad,” she said.
    “What’s going on here?” he asked again.
    “Ask your daughter!” Dan scowled at her.
    “It wasn’t me,” Ashley said stiffly.
    “Yeah, it was,” Dan snapped.
    “That’s it, you are both grounded.”
    “You can’t ground me!” Dan cried out.
    “Watch me.”
    This should be interesting, Ashley sighed in resignation.
    ***
    Wow that had an extreme overuse of em-dashes, or en-dashes or whatever. 🙂 Wasn’t very good… I just felt like writing something, instead of doing “real” work that’s has a due date 😛 I should have used this for my dissent entry, shouldn’t i have?:P LOLz.

  • “Max–what did you do?”
    Max stared up at Ashley with big brown eyes.
    Ashley picked her way through the room–books, papers, and other random stuff that she did not want to think about were strewn across the room. She made her way to Max. “How could you do this to me?”
    Max looked at her in the way that dogs did when they knew they were guilty. He got up and was about to turn to go into his crate.
    “Uh, uh, uh–you aren’t getting away so easily!”
    “Ashley, what happened?”
    The blonde girl whipped around, startled by the new voice. “Oh–Dan,” she stammered, her face flushing. “So how was your day?”
    “What–” Dan’s face was flushed. “What happened to my house?”
    “Um…” Ashley began in a whisper, “I can explain–”
    “I’ve seen enough,” Dan said coldly.
    “I didn’t even get to finish!” Ashley exclaimed.
    “I can SEE you standing there!” Dan snapped.
    “Wait, wait, so you assume–”
    “Don’t tell me what I assume, I know what I assume–”
    “Just because I was standing here, doesn’t mean I did it–”
    “Okay, what in the world is going on here?”
    Ashley gulped at the sound of her father’s eerily calm voice over their exploding argument.
    “Hi, Dad,” she said.
    “What’s going on here?” he asked again.
    “Ask your daughter!” Dan scowled at her.
    “It wasn’t me,” Ashley said stiffly.
    “Yeah, it was,” Dan snapped.
    “That’s it, you are both grounded.”
    “You can’t ground me!” Dan cried out.
    “Watch me.”
    This should be interesting, Ashley sighed in resignation.
    ***
    Wow that had an extreme overuse of em-dashes, or en-dashes or whatever. 🙂 Wasn’t very good… I just felt like writing something, instead of doing “real” work that’s has a due date 😛 I should have used this for my dissent entry, shouldn’t i have?:P LOLz.

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  • Matt O’Berski

    “Stop it Max, you’re freaking me out!” — he was doing it again, this
    time in the middle of the living room, just staring. Could he even hear her?
    Piled around him were magazines and old newspaper clippings of God knows what.
    No seriously, God is literally the only person that Max had talked to or about
    or done anything with lately. He won’t even look at me.
    Walking toward him out of the kitchen — a kitchen blue and white with
    stucco walls and a drop ceiling, Ashley felt smaller than the font in all the
    books surrounding her husband. More broken. Less cared for. Less… touched — oh
    don’t get me started on physical contact. I would settle for him to meet my
    eyes once in the last 6 months! But no, ever since the accident…
    Before, we were in love. He would come surprise me at work an—do you
    know what he used to do? He would know that I was busy at work, that I had
    patients and was running extremely low on patience, and then he would show up.
    I always used to imagine having a strong and brave husband who would swoop me
    up on his noble steed and carry me away into the sunset — imagination… dreams…
    Real life is better. Max used to drive his noble Ferrari to McDonalds and would
    pick me up a sprite and a 99¢ fry, then he would come to the office and they
    would page me as if I was desperately needed at the front. I would come,
    frustrated because I had to leave my patients in the back just for who knows
    what out front — and then I would see him there. Standing tall and smiling big
    — or you know, sometimes he would have the surprise behind his back, or he
    would hide and I would have to find him. Max helps me remember what it’s like
    to be a kid again — It’s the small things that matter.
    The doctors said he was lucky to have survived the impact. They had
    never seen a patient with such extensive damage able to function again. I think
    they judged him on the small things. From what I see, he can’t even do those
    anymore.
    Tell me, am I ridiculous to miss my husband while I’m in the same room
    as him? I wish every day the lightpole had been better secured. Or that Max
    hadn’t been on his lunch break when it mysteriously fell with a crash on top of
    him. It didn’t break him, but his spirit isn’t the same.

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    I ENJOY Em-dashes, although, like Kat, I didn’t know that the dashes sprinkled across my posts were called “Muttons” 😛

    Thank youuuu
    Kitto

  • Kenneth M. Harris

    I don’t know where I have been. Actually, I don’t believe that I ever heard of these dashes.
    or if I did, they might have been called something else. I’m still surprised at this. The only dash that I know of is the one that I use in my e-mail. When I use dialogue in my writing and even in College, I use the ” in the beginning of the conversation and end “. I have learned something today. I do believe that we learn something almost every, every, day.

  • Excellent… used sparingly, m-dashes are effective for clarifying. The term “mutton” definitely presents a new perspective on their use too.

  • manilamac

    The ellipsis is—except to show omitted material in a quote—used almost exclusively in dialog and most often implies an action on the part of the speaker. A deliberate pause… Or a deliberate opening for an answer or response—perhaps. The em-dash would therefore suit for a speaker being interrupted—by an action of someone (or something) else. Thus, there’s no conflict in dialog use between the two. The main conflict comes in conversational writing like this… I am, in effect, the “speaker” here & can pause either way…ellipsis being most common online these days.

    In narrative—especially non-fiction—the ellipsis should probably be used only to note omission. This brings me (at long last) to the relationship between the em-dash and parenthesis. The best advice seems to be that in narrative, the em-dash often serves the same purpose as the parenthesis—except stronger. (Weaker material is easily captured and shut in parenthesis.) And here you see the other big advantage—there is no requirement to “close” the em-dash.

    To avoid coming off as a snoot, I’ll just add that these are more issues of etiquette than of rule. For instance, em-dashes are—usually—used in pairs or singly in a single sentence—beyond three, it becomes a chore to decode what’s being set off. And—as with all good writing—consistency reigns supreme. (Though using nothing but ellipsis does come off looking rather amateur…and substituting ellipsis for parenthesis is just wrong.)

    One potential pay-off is, if a character is thinking (rather than speaking) & you use the ellipsis, it can help separate thought from narrative without the need for any special device—such as italics—or attributions, he thought. Final thought. Some style-book-using publications (especially news & magazines) specify the “spaced” em-dash — unlike the ones I’ve used above — which are “un-spaced.” Likewise, I’ve encountered editors—snooty types, all—who find un-spaced em-dashes totally unacceptable — in submission manuscripts. Books, on the other hand, seldom use spaced ones. Nor do I.

    • This is a fantastically thorough analysis. Most of this I knew, but you helped me sort through some of the finer aspects of the em dash. Thank you for sharing this, @manilamac:disqus.

      • manilamac

        Thanks Joe! The Write Practice is a fantastic resource. Though I seldom have time to contribute (racing a deadline as I write this) I check the site daily. Keep up the fine work!

    • Nianro

      Expanding a bit on manilamac’s analysis. I write fiction, not non-fiction; bear that in mind.

      The em-dash is a type of parenthetical. That category holds parentheses (duh) as well as basically anything else that allows for, well, a parenthetical thought. An aside, if you will. Commas are parenthetical in some cases, and they’re likely the subtlest punctuation for a parenthetical statement. Use commas when you can; if you can’t use a comma for a parenthetical, the thought could be out of place in the first place. This is doubly true of non-fiction, where you’re trying to convey information, rather than mood and emotion and whatnot.

      I’ve argued that certain (ab)uses of footnotes and endnotes qualify as parenthetical, and if so, they’re certainly the most abrupt and jarring form of parenthetical (sidenotes are substantially less abrasive to the reader, but then you have to keep this big white space by the text, which kills the rainforest and so forth—less of an issue with electronic documents, i.e. PDFs; give it a try sometime).

      The em dash is stronger, but somehow less formal, than the parentheses. An em dash is like a big abrupt break in the narrative, whereas a set of parentheses is like somebody making a little comment sotto voce.

      I find it very unnatural to use parentheses in dialogue; the em dash feels much more conversational.

      The big disadvantage to the em dash is its uniformity. An em dash is an em dash is an em dash is occasionally two dashes when your word processor drops the ball. They all look the same, and that makes it easy to get lost. Parentheses are more polite, since they face a certain direction, which tells you for sure what’s in the bubble and out of the bubble. For this reason, I strongly advice against using more than two em dashes in one sentence, no matter its length. The exception is an em dash within a set of parentheses, as I used in paragraph three. You shouldn’t use a parenthetical within a parenthetical unless you’re dead set on giving the reader whiplash, but the em dash is a good way to punctuate your statement.

      Everyone here has seen someone, somewhere, sometime, overuse the ellipsis … like … this … punctuating … every … discrete … thought … like … some … sort … of … chronic … depressive. It reads like getting stuck behind some jackass doing 30 on the interstate. You should be allowed to shoot them. An ellipsis is like a speed bump. Be very careful of it.

      Ellipses and em dashes are both acceptable for indicating interrupted chains of thought, but the effect is very different. Compare:

      “But I thought you loved—”
      “Idiot,” she said.

      to

      “But I thought you loved …”
      “Idiot,” she said.

      One is an abrupt disruption, the other is a sort of morendo descent. It’s perfectly acceptable to break consistency of punctuation here to indicate different breaks in speech or thought, so long as you are consistent in your inconsistency.

      Ellipses, parentheses, and em dashes are all easy to abuse. Overuse of parentheticals is a sure sign of poorly organized thought, which symptomizes schizophrenia. You don’t want your readers to think of you as being schizophrenic. Nothing against schizophrenics, mind; I know a few and they’re great, but it’s not usually the sort of image you want (unless maybe you’re writing from the perspective of a character who’s a little unhinged in the first place, in which case, hey, go nuts).

      The ellipsis is not just three periods; it’s typeset with a special character, and is separated from each word by a space. Most word processors replace the three dots with an ellipsis, but do not separate it from the word as it should be. To wit:

      Lorem…ipsum is wrong.
      Lorem… ipsum is wrong.
      Lorem …ipsum is incorrigible and makes you look totally ridiculous.
      Lorem … ipsum is right.

      Feel free to disregard the preceding advice if, for instance, your editor is computer-illiterate, you don’t know how to make it work with HTML, etc. If you know how, try to prevent the ellipsis from stretching across a line. It accentuates the disruptive effect. That may not be a simple matter; I do all of this stuff in LaTeX, so I really don’t know very much at all about word processors.

      On a Mac, you can get an ellipsis character with option-semicolon. Not sure about Windows or Linux. All the ellipses in this post are proper ellipsis characters, not triple periods. Copy and paste if need be.

      Do not use the em dash between ranges, e.g. dates, prices, etc. Use the en dash for those (or follow your style manual’s dictate; I think the AMA uses plain hyphens, which look cramped and silly, but whatever).

      Spaced em dashes are ridiculous. The shell-shocking lacuna induces the sort of pause that ought to be reserved for recovery from a serious motor vehicle accident, not a casual act of literary leisure. Perhaps acceptable in hoity-toity academic publications, etc.; personally, I find a punch to the face less disruptive. Even worse than spaced em dashes are em dashes spaced only on one side. For the love of creation, never do that. There is a temptation—at least in my experience—to include a comma or semicolon at the end of a parenthetical em dash, but every modern style and usage guide I’ve encountered has condemned the practice.

      As with most things, you can learn all of this and more by observing how other authors use it, and ignoring absolutely all online usage (even serious, respectable, literary-type authors get really dumb about their punctuation online sometimes).

  • I use em-dashes all the time. Even in my personal journals. I don’t remember when I began using them in those journals—or anywhere else, for that matter—but they’re second nature now.

    The primer course is helpful, though. I didn’t realize there was a usage difference between en-dashes and em-dashes. That’s good to know!

    • Me too, Carrie. I think I started using them in high school to look smarter (it didn’t work very well then). I especially like them as an alternative to a parenthetical.

      • LOL on the high school thing. I know I started using em-dashes since high school (that was soooo many years ago!).

      • I know what you mean. I sure feel smarter already, just from reading that article.

  • Kathy

    I have heard about the M-dash and now I know I can use it without putting two dashes together. I’m glad a little education might make a difference in my dialogue. “But Katie, why are you so hopeless today–like I could ever figure you out.” Unfortunately using the shift-alt-dash produced nothing and had to just the double dash. I try later to check out this method. Good article and I’ll be sure to heed your great use of m-dash. Thanks.

    • Are you on a PC, Kathy? Try CTRL + ALT + dash/minus key

  • Or, instead of using an em-dash to break up sentences, the other option is to use an en-dash with spaces (but never, hopefully, an em-dash plus spaces or the poor reader will never get to the other side of the yawning chasm thus created).

    As an entirely unscientific experiment, I just pulled the first eight books that came to hand from my to-read shelf. Different authors, publishers and genres, but all fairly recent. Seven of them used en-dash plus spaces, and only one used em-dashes midsentence.

    It seems that in modern typography the em-dash is being reserved for the cutting-off of dialogue at the end of a sentence…

  • oddznns

    This is useful. I’ ve been abusing ellipses forever … Now to put them out of their misery — m-dashes, n-dashes and hypens, here I come!~

  • Slightly easier way to create em-dash: CONTROL + ALT + (the minus sign on the keypad). This is on a PC as opposed to a Mac.

  • Kenneth M. Harris

    I totally agree that Liz very, very clear in the meanings of the dashes. However, for me, right now, I would stick with the punctuation that I use. Who knows, now that I have a little more, thanks to LIz about these dashes, I might use the in the future. Thanks so much to you Liz and Jo. Ken

  • Rali Minkova

    “As with dessert, wine, and Nikki Minaj concerts, moderation is the key.” – Best thing I’ve read all day. And first en-dash I’ve ever used without Word doing it for me. Thank you for this article Liz, I had no idea about the details between these three. I’m putting on my cone of shame and carrying on now. 🙂

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  • scmathisen

    What is the option key? I suspect it is an apple thing.

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