For a long time, I wondered what an em dash was — all while using it in my writing. Chances are, you’re in the same boat as a younger me, using the em dash or the longest dash in the punctuation town without knowing what it’s called.
Here’s the em dash symbol —. Doesn’t it instantly ring a bell?
English language’s latest darling, the em dash, can fit in nicely in place of several other punctuation marks including the comma, semicolon, and parenthesis.
Thanks to its potential of giving writing a less business-y, more conversational touch, the em dash queen has developed a fandom of sorts among writers. Some admire its use — almost finding themselves unable to go long without adding it to their writing (myself included 🙋) while others can’t stand its use.
In this post, we breakdown what an em dash is, when to use it, and how to type an em dash among other essential details to help you decide which side of the camp you belong to.
Let’s get on with it.
When is an em dash?
An em dash gets its name from its width, which is roughly the same size of an M.
It’s used in place of commas, semicolons, parentheses, and colons, which explains its widespread use. In fact, it can help deliver the following jobs:
Here’s an em dash example from the Helpscout blog where it plays a role emphasizing omnichannel service:
Similarly, in the book Made to Stick, the em dash is used to expand the authors’ thought as they write:
The em dash in this New York Times piece does the same:
So what’s the difference between em dash and en dash
Before we dive in any further, it’s important to address the em dash vs en dash struggle to save you from confusing the two.
To begin with, both the n-dash and em dash look different. There’s difference in the width chiefly with the en dash being a long dash, but one that’s shorter than the em dash and longer than a single hyphen.
On top of it, both the dashes fulfil different responsibilities. Where an em dash takes the place for various punctuation marks – working to add emphasis, share an afterthought, and so on – the en dash denotes ranges.
Use an en dash when you’re giving a time range such as: Jan-Feb or number ranges like 1-9. You can also use an en dash to replace words like ‘and,’ ‘to,’ and ‘versus.’ In the em dash vs en dash above, you can write, em dash-en dash for example.
That said, if you were looking at dashes between phone numbers, those aren’t en or em dashes. For a phone number, you take to hyphenation or using hyphens instead of n-dash.
How to type an em dash
Now that you know the difference between the two dashes, let’s show you how to make an em dash since there isn’t one on your keyboard (can’t believe word processors haven’t catched up yet, can you?).
Here’s your cheat sheet for all operating systems:
When to use an em dash
Lots of ground to cover here, so let’s roll up our sleeves and dig into each point:
An em dash instead of a colon ( : )
Colons are used to introduce independent clauses or information; information that can be introduced in a separate sentence. Just as I did right now.
Colons also help detail a list and draw attention to the information. But em dashes do that better, in part due to their width, which makes them more visually appealing.
An em dash in place of a semicolon ( ; )
Semicolons are used to connect two sentences that can stand independently too. Let’s back this with an example:
With a semicolon: We played a clumsy game; we were bound to lose.
In true em dash style: We played a clumsy game — we were bound to lose.
An em dash to replace parenthesis ( )
Always together as pairs, parenthesis is a fancy word for brackets or, at least, brackets denote parenthesis. Their role? Giving additional information or parenthetical information, which could vary from being a few words to complete sentences.
Em dashes can do the same job as parenthesis, but not as subtly as they tend to leave an impact and add a casual flair to the writing.
Note that if the parenthesis is toward the end of a sentence, you only need one em dash in their stead.
Here’s an example:
Best practices for using em dashes
Convinced you need to play with em dashes in your writing? Awesome to have you on the team! Simply keep these two pointers in mind:
Avoid using more than two em dashes in a sentence
Since these dashes denote afterthoughts, it helps to keep to two em dashes in a sentence. Too many afterthoughts or over-emphasizing shows a lack of clarity in your writing, making it dull to read.
Use them sparingly
The reason? Em dashes add effects — asking the reader to pause as you share a thought. For maximum effect, make people pause only when you really want them to.
One last thing: what’s up with the space surrounding em dash
If you’ve ever paid attention to the space around em dashes, you’d see there are two variations that publications comply with: em dashes the stand in with spaces around it and those that don’t. So what gives?
Here’s how to decide for yourself: If you want to leave a pronounced visual impact, you might want to bracket em dashes with spaces on either side — like this.
Newspapers and other publications — ourselves included — that follow the AP styleguide include spaces around the em dashes. The reason behind this? Newsletters are packed with narrow columns that don’t make for a spacious look. Therefore, adding spacing on both sides of the em dash creates a spacious impact on the text layout. This makes it easy for the eye to read.
On the other side of the pond, all other styleguides like the Chicago Manual of Style prefer to use em dashes without spaces. So if you’re following the AP styleguide, you’ll want to use spaces. If not, you can go without spaces surrounding your em dashes. Just be sure to check with your stylebook first.