The em dash or “m” dash can be a versatile addition to your punctuation toolbox, capable of taking the place of a comma, colon, or parentheses. This guide quickly explains the how to use em dashes and how they differ from other types of dashes.

Main Takeaways:

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  • An em dash can replace commas, parentheses, and colons.
  • Em dashes are much wider than en dashes, which is close in size to the hyphen.
  • Em dashes can add clarity, signal a break, or indicate an interruption in a sentence.
  • Typically, you shouldn’t include a space before or after the em dash.
  • Type em dashes by pressing Alt+0151 for Windows or Shift+Option+Minus (-) for Mac.

When a comma or colon isn’t enough, or you want to avoid using parentheses, the em dash may be the punctuation mark for you. This versatile symbol can often replace its confusing counterparts, adding structure and clarity to otherwise complex sentences.

What is an Em Dash Used for?

An em dash is the longest of the dashes. It has multiple uses, making it a staple of informal writing. Em dashes are used to indicate an interruption or an abrupt change in thought. An em dash can also indicate a sentence break, usually when clarifying information or proving extra focus for a list of items. Conversely, they can also indicate missing information or parts of a word. Finally, you can use em dashes as an alternative to parenthesis.

Here are a few ways to effectively incorporate this versatile punctuation mark into a sentence:

1. To Signal an Interruption

Em dashes can signal an interruption, particularly in the written expression of speech, such as dialogue. It’s a technique that’s often used in the transcription of verbal communications.

She started to say, “What I mean is that—” when he rushed in from the yard yelling that there had been an accident.
Em dash is one of the most versatile punctuation marks that you can use.
Between hyphen and en dash, there’s em dash, one of the most versatile punctuation marks that you can use.

2. To Indicate a Sentence Break

Em dashes can be used to denote a break in a sentence, especially for clarifying information (otherwise known as appositives). Although a comma may also be appropriate in this instance, an em dash can provide more emphasis.

I shop at that cute little boutique—the one on the corner of Magnolia Street—whenever I need a gift for a friend.

3. To Set Off a Parenthetical Information

If parentheses aren’t your friends, em dashes can also be used to set off parenthetical expressions. Parenthetical expressions are words or phrases that are added to a sentence without changing its initial meaning or grammatical structure.

I drive to the beach—you know how much I love the ocean—just about every weekend when the weather is nice.

4. To Emphasize the End of a Sentence

Similar to a colon but less formal, em dashes can emphasize the conclusion of a sentence.

Roberto knew one thing about his boss—she was out to get him.

5. To Signify Missing Portions of a Word

By pairing em dashes together, you can signify an omission. To indicate missing letters in a word, whether they’re unknown or intentionally omitted, use two consecutive em dashes. To indicate the omission of an entire word, use either a double dash or three consecutive em dashes. Punctuation surrounding the missing words and letters should follow standard rules of grammar.

The letter she’d pulled from the fire had been charred and almost impossible to read. She could only make out the following: I never planned on m——ng him. It was only his ——— that convinced me.

6. To Provide Focus to a List

When a sentence begins with a list, try following it up with an em dash. It can provide focus, helping a reader see essential connections between the list and the unifying idea that follows.

Roses, daisies, chrysanthemums—all flowers were beautiful to her.

7. To Show an Abrupt Change in Thought

Em dashes can indicate to a reader that there’s been an abrupt change in thought. This is especially true in informal or creative writing.

I was thinking of going to the pool after work—no, let’s go to the beach instead.

How do I Type an Em Dash?

Keyboards typically don’t offer an em dash option, so how do you type them? If you’re working on a computer, use these ways to create this punctuation mark:

  • For Windows, press Ctrl+Alt +Minus(-) or Alt+0151.
  • If you have a Mac, press Shift+Option+Minus (-).

Most word processing programs offer charts of symbols, which can be inserted in a document. Many programs also automatically create an em dash when you type two single hyphens together. On cell phones running Android’s Gboard or iOS operating systems, press and hold the hyphen on the onscreen keyboard. Several options will pop up, including the em dash.

What is the Difference Between an Em Dash and an En Dash?

Each differs in size and function. In fact, their names hold a clever clue to what makes them different. The em dash is physically about the width of the letter M—thus, literally, “em” dash. Its smaller counterpart, the en dash, is about as wide as the letter N is. The en dash is primarily used to indicate a range of numbers or a span of time. It can also be used to show a connection between two words, especially if those words are already hyphenated. This is what’s known as a compound adjective.

Em dashes are longer than en dashes.
Em dashes are longer than en dashes.

Not all dashes are created equal. These two lookalike punctuation marks also serve markedly different functions. Here are some examples of how to use an en dash:

I told her to read pages 22–48 of the style guide if she wanted to understand dashes.
The pro-choice–pro-life debate was ongoing in their household and often got quite heated.

(Notice in the second example how pro-choice and pro-life are each hyphenated, while the en dash connects them.)

Em Dash vs. Hyphen: The Battle of Big and Small

Rounding out the trio of dashes is the em dash‘s little cousin, the unassuming hyphen.

The shortest of the three dash-style punctuation marks, the hyphen is used to connect two or more words. They can link up words that are working together.

We needed to find dog-friendly lodging while we were driving across the country.

Other Uses for Hyphens

As the most common form of dash, hyphens have a multitude of uses. They can:

  • Be used to form compound words such as mother-in-law and editor-in-chief.
  • Express numbers such as fifty-seven and fractions such as one-third.
  • Connect words to prefixes such as all-, ex-, and self-.
In writing, em dash can be used to signal interruptions in conversations.
In writing, em dash can be used to signal interruptions in conversations.

Additional Rules and Usage for Em Dash

There are a few other simple things to remember to use em dashes effectively when you write.

  • To avoid run-on sentences and ensure clarity of meaning, using the em dash should be limited to twice per sentence.
  • In most instances, the em dash is typed or written with no space before or after it. However, many newspapers and publications that follow the AP Stylebook include a space before and after the em dash.
  • The em dash should be used sparingly, if at all, in formal writing.

Wrapping Up: The Long and the Short of Dashes

The em dash is one of the most versatile punctuation marks in the English language. This linear-appearing lifesaver can replace commas, parentheses, and even colons—often creating more emphasis than their more traditional counterparts. Em dashes can also indicate missing portions of a word, provide focus for a list, and signify a break in a sentence.

The long and the short of it is that em dashes—and their shorter-but-similar counterparts are your friends. They can help you bring clarity and structure to complex sentences. So, when in doubt, dash it out.

Read More: Hyphen Vs. Dash: Size Matters In Punctuation

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