You’re writing a book. As you do this, you’re picking up on some new grammar rules when you come across an em dash. You think, “What the heck is that?”

em dash

If I’m honest, 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, and then I went on to additional resources. Lo and behold, there was a lot more to learn about an em dash than the definition alone—especially when l got to see examples that showed an em dash in action.

See what I did there?

If not, don’t fret! You have this whole post to learn more about what an em dash is, when to use it, and why it can add style (if it’s not overused) to your stories.

Em Dash—Definition

Turns out the em dash (also known as an m dash, m-rule, the long dash, or, in the grammatical slang circles, “mutton”) 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.”

In certain circumstances, an em dash can take the place of commas, parentheses, colons, and semicolons. It also differs from a hyphen and an en dash, all of which I’ll explain more with examples later in the post.

Until then, think of an em dash as an exciting way to add extra information to the end of a sentence—or in the middle of it, like you can see in the example above.

In the English language, you might see an em dash used in informal writing or creative writing. It gives voice and style to the prose in a way that a comma or semicolon might not, even though it serves a similar purpose.

But when do you use an em dash? What’s the benefit of it and why do writers sometimes misuse this punctuation mark?

What Em Dashes (Long 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.

Look at the second example above. There, it’s pretty clear that Carl is done hearing Lauren’s protests about his dining choices. He cuts her off mid sentence, and the use of an em dash is far more appealing (and less distracted) than an ellipses.

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 Use and Avoid an Em Dash

There are times for an em dash and other times for a hyphen or different punctuation mark. Knowing when to use an em dash or not could clean up your writing, and engage a reader instead of confuse or distract them.

Em Dash vs. En Dash vs. Hyphen vs. Minus Sign

In the last handful of years, some writers have used the hyphen, en dash, or minus sign in place of the em dash, but really these punctuation marks are not transferable.

There are important differences:

Hyphen or Em Dash?

A hyphen connects two elements that are joined together to function as one word. There are five types of words that should be hyphenated:

  1. Compound adjective + noun
  2. Age + noun
  3. Some numbers (twenty-one through ninety-nine)
  4. Some prefixes (though not many)
  5. Confusing combinations of words where a hyphen will help with clarity

best-seller, two-year-old, pre-Hanukkah, and anti-racist

An em dash cannot work as a hyphen. An em dash expands an idea, provides emphasis, or suggests an interruption. It does not combine words.

Not sure when to use a hyphen? Check out the Chicago Manual of Style Hyphenation Table for a quick-reference guide to all your hyphenation needs.

Double Hyphen or Em Dash?

A double hyphen is a punctuation mark that uses two parallel hyphens. It looks more like an equal sign. It is not to be mistaken with two dash (–). This is most often used with typefaces, or used for commercial purposes that give the punctuation mark some visual effect.

Malbaum⸗Franktur.

En Dash or Em Dash?

An en dash links a range of numbers or words together, like a hyphen, whereas an em dash separates the words or sentences.

I am going on vacation from July 4–8.

In this case, you can think of the en dash like the word “through”:

I am going on vacation from July 4 through July 8.

Em dashes don’t indicate ranges of numbers, and they don’t act as a substitute for “through.”

Minus Sign or Em Dash?

A minus sign and a hyphen are the same length: a short, single line that connects two words to mean one word (-).

An em dash, or dash in general, is longer. This is double the length of a minus sign (—) and indicates that there is a break in thought.

A – B = C

You would not use a dash in a mathematical expression like this. The minus sign will do just fine.

Em Dash vs. Comma vs. Parentheses vs. Colon vs. Semicolon

As mentioned above, an em dash can be used in place of a comma, parentheses, or colon (semicolon). Let’s explore when different punctuation marks mean the same thing, and how you can choose when to use each.

Em Dash vs. Comma

An em dash might be used instead of a comma for a stylistic choice, or if there are a lot of sentences already used in a sentence or paragraph and you want to switch it up.

The poet Emily Dickinson used a lot of em dashes in her work.

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—

Em Dash vs. Parentheses

Use an em dash instead of parentheses if you want to draw more attention to the word or phrase the em dah offsets. Dashes are also informal compared to parentheses, so for a more casual tone, use an em dash.

Using parentheses might draw your attention to the word (but not necessarily).

Using an em dash will likely draw your attention to the offset words—and ensure you read it, instead of skim or skip what’s written.

Em Dash vs. Colon

​​​​Writers might use a colon at the end of a sentence to transition to a list. An em dash can do this too, if the colon is used to separate extra information at the end of a sentence.

I’ve been waiting ten years to go on my favorite vacation: a trip to New Zealand!

I’ve been waiting ten years to go on my favorite vacation—a trip to New Zealand!

Em Dash vs. Semicolon

An em dash is used more than semicolon because it’s more casual, and possibly less detached. Just like a semicolon, the em dash can join two independent clauses.

Sally went to the fish market today and bought salmon; her dinner that night was delicious.

Sally went to the fish market today and bought salmon—her dinner that night was delicious.

Em Dash Keyboard Shortcut

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

Note, that’s not an em dash. It’s a shortcut that probably won’t bother a lot of readers, but astute observers will be able to tell the difference. And if you’re publishing a book, the double-hyphen-en-dash will drive your proofreader nuts.

This bears repeating: when you put two hyphens together, you do not create an em dash.

Plus, on most web editors—Wordpress, Twitter, and Facebook, for example—those two hyphens don’t magically become dashes of any variety. They stay two hyphens forever with that pesky little gap between them.

So how do you make an em dash? It’s a little tricky to get the hang of, but with a little practice, it’ll become second nature.

You have three options:

First, you can copy and paste an em dash. Here’s a helpful em dash ready for your copying:

Or, you can learn the keyboard shortcut. It’s not that hard! Here’s the shortcut on a PC:

alt/option + shift + hyphen (-)

And here’s the shortcut on Mac:

option + shift + hyphen (-)

There is one third option. If you’re in a program that includes a formatting toolbar, like Microsoft Word or WordPress, you can can go into the Symbols section of your word processor and search for the em dash there.

But why hunt and peck when you can use a quick and easy keyboard shortcut?

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.

Bonus! More Punctuation Resources

Do you feel confident about when to use an em dashes now but still have budding grammar questions? Some of these additional resources on The Write Practice blog might be exactly what you’ve been looking for:

Need more grammar help? My favorite tool that helps find grammar problems and even generates reports to help improve my writing is ProWritingAid. Works with Word, Scrivener, Google Docs, and web browsers. Also, be sure to use my coupon code to get 25 percent off: WritePractice25

Coupon Code: WritePractice25 »

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 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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