When and How to Use an Em Dash (—)?
The em dash was once reserved for typography nerds, but now it's everywhere. It adds panache to your texts, connects sentences and looks great on the web.
What is an em dash?
The em dash (—) is a versatile and stylish bit of punctuation. You can use it to add emphasis to your writing, make your text easier to scan, and highlight important phases.
The name em dash comes from its size, which is about the same width as a capital ‘M’. But the em dash goes by other names too: m dash, long hyphen, long dash—and just plain awesome.
When to use an em dash?
1. To replace parentheses
Normally, you use parentheses to offset something parenthetical (extra information that is optional to understanding the main idea). Want to add some flair and style to your text? Use em dashes instead, like in this example:
Good punctuation—periods, commas and dashes—make your writing easier to read.
If the phrase is at the end of the sentence, you only need one em dash:
The secret weapon of a good writer is the thesaurus—hundreds of synonyms for each word.
2. To replace commas—in style
Commas often serve the same role as parentheses, they add extra info to a sentence. This extra bit of information is called an appositive. Whenever commas are used with appositives you can replace them with em dashes. You probably don't want to do it with every appositive, but every once in a while, it makes important text pop.
Here are some examples of appositive phrases in between em dashes:
The overuse of commas—common in older texts—looks strange in our digital age.
Building your own website—something that used to be very hard—is easy with the right tools.
3. To replace a colon
Colons mark a list that comes at the end of a sentence. They're functional, but you can add some jazz to your list with an em dash:
Everyone should read the great works of Russian literature—War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina.
The em dash is a great way to make your list stand out. (Of course, if you don't want the list to dominate, stick with a colon.) Example:
We all know the keys to great writing—coffee, editing and more coffee!
4. To serve as a visual bleep
Maybe you have a word that you can't write in the workplace chat or for some other reason? Our trusty em dash can also handle this. Here how you can add a bit of mystery and drama to your writing:
She'd already talked to—about the situation.
M— said that he'd like to join the group.
5. To give your text a sharp turn
The em dash was made for the stream of consciousness. You're going and going deep into some thoughts and then inspiration hits—in an entirely different direction.
This is a nice visual cue to your readers that your thinking is dashing from one place to the next. Example:
When you're thinking of a wonderful summer day—the harsh reality of winter is just around the corner.
How to put the em dash into a sentence
Now that you know when you can use an em dash, it's important not to overboard with it. Twice per sentence is plenty. There's no set rule for how many times you can use it per page, use your best judgement.
There's also no agreement on whether you should use an em dash with spaces or not. AP style has a space, while Chicago doesn't. The key is consistency. If you put a space before and em dash, make sure you add one after it.
Pro tip: You can use a thin space to get the best of both worlds.
How to type an em dash
On a PC with a full keyboard (numeric keypad): Alt + 0151.
On a Mac: hold down option, shift and minus at the same time.
On a PC-laptop: go to the Character Map and select the em dash there.
Hyphen, en dash and em dash: What’s the difference?
It's easy to confuse the em dash with it's close relatives the hyphen and en dash. To put it simply:
The hyphen is shortest of all and is used to connect multiple words that work together as a single concept: My mother-in-law is a stickler for proper punctuation.
An en dash is used for ranges: It's hard to figure out your life path from 18–22!
To find out everything you need to know about horizontal punctuation marks, check our complete guide to hyphens vs. dashes.
A quick roundup
A few em dashes can add some zest to your text. In places that you would use a comma or colon, consider an em dash instead. A few em dashes on a page bring out the key phrases of your text—use them wisely!
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Derek Kedziora, UX Writer at Wix
When he's not crafting microcopy, Derek is cycling around Kyiv, taking long walks or tinkering with old school technology.