What is an em dash? When you’re writing, knowing as much as possible about the different types of dashes you use can mean the difference between being taken seriously as a writer or promptly dismissed as an amateur.
Furthermore, if you’re going to use an em dash, en dash or hyphen, it’s essential that you know precisely how to use them correctly, especially if you want to use the popular em dash.
What Is an Em Dash?
An em dash is a punctuation mark that looks like a hyphen but is wider. Specifically, an em dash is about the width of an uppercase letter M. When it comes to punctuation marks, the beloved em dash is one of the most versatile.
It depends on the context the writer is going for, but an em dash can be used in place of parentheses, commas, or colons. You can even use an em dash in place of quotation marks in certain instances. Depending on how a writer uses an em dash, slightly different effects will result.
The em dash enjoys a bit of a cult following, and many writers enjoy debating its many uses. Another hot debate is the overuse of the em dash. In fact, the “New York Times” has even called the em dash the “bad boy, or cool girl, of punctuation,” adding that this controversial punctuation mark is a “rebel without a clause” and a “freewheeling scofflaw.”
In short, people who love language and writing tend to have strong opinions about the em dash.
Rules for Using the Em Dash
The role of the em dash is to set off a clause or single word and add emphasis. It can also signal interruptions or help to amplify an idea.
One thing to keep in mind is that usage of the em dash should be limited to no more than two appearances for every sentence. If writers overuse the em dash, they run the risk of confusing their readers.
If you’re writing journalism, it helps to know that most major newspapers which follow “The Associated Press Stylebook” add a space on both sides of the em dash. Here is an example of how newspapers use a single space on both sides of the em dash.
Example: Many newspapers — especially those using “The Associated Press Stylebook” — put a space on either side of the em dash.
Equally important is knowing the difference between em dash vs en dash, and you never want to confuse either of these dashes with a hyphen.
How to Create an Em Dash
There are several ways to create an em dash when you’re working on a computer. The easiest way is to use one of these keyboard shortcuts on your computer, depending on whether you use a Windows PC or a Mac.
- Most programs: Type Alt+0151
- Microsoft Word: Alt+Ctrl+ – (minus)
Shift-Alt-hyphen or Command + M
Workarounds for Laptops
If you’re working on a compact PC laptop, standard keyboard shortcuts may not work for you. In this case, you’ll need a workaround. You can plug in a full-sized keyboard or use one of the following techniques.
- Unicode character codes: 2014+Alt+x (these codes won’t work in Gmail, Scrivener or Google Docs)
- Google Docs: Type two hyphens and then hit the space bar. The two hyphens will change automatically to an em dash.
- Microsoft Word and Scrivener: Use the same technique described above for Google Docs.
- The character map on your operating system: From the search function, type in the phrase “character map.” A symbol grid will pop up, and you can select your dash from there. Then, copy and paste it into your word processing program or document.
- Copy and paste: You can always find an em dash with a Google search and simply copy and paste it into our document if you’re rushed for time.
Another idea that works is plugging a portable USB number keypad into your laptop. Then, you can use the Alt codes to create your dashes.
For more information about creating other dashes and em dashes on various toolbars and operating systems, check out this extensive guide on Wikipedia.
Examples of an Em Dash
To better understand how to use an em dash correctly, compare the examples below.
Using an Em Dash in Place of a Comma
You can use two em dashes as bookends in place of a comma in a sentence.
Example with commas: When the sofa was delivered, more than a month after it was ordered, assembly was required.
Example with em dashes: When the sofa was delivered—more than a month after it was ordered—assembly was required.
Using an Em Dash to Replace Parentheses
If you use too many parentheses in paragraphs or sentences, it can make your writing look cluttered. Consider using em dashes instead. Usually, this technique is well-suited to digital content like blogs.
Example with parentheses: Upon finding the kittens (all six of them), the homeowner called the animal rescue organization.
Example with em dashes: Upon finding the kittens—all six of them—the homeowner called the animal rescue organization.
Using an Em Dash to Replace a Colon
Example with a colon: After deliberating for weeks, the jury returned a unanimous decision; guilty.
Example with em dashes: After deliberating for weeks, the jury returned a unanimous decision—guilty.
Using Multiple Em Dashes
Writers can use multiple em dashes to indicate portions of a word that are missing. For example, if a person’s name is unknown or deliberately redacted, em dashes can serve this purpose.
Example: Mr. M—— agreed that the verdict was just.
If you’re using em dashes to replace an entire word, you can use either two or three em dashes. However, whichever number of em dashes you chose to replace missing words, do this consistently throughout your entire document or publication. Here is an example.
Example: The young victim, ———, refused to testify.
Em Dash vs. En Dash
When comparing an em dash and an en dash, it’s helpful to remember how the two dashes got their names. The em dash is about the width of an uppercase letter M, while an en dash is the width of an uppercase letter N. Because of this, en dashes are just slightly narrower (shorter) than em dashes.
Even though they look similar, the two dashes are used much differently. Specifically, en dashes are used mainly to indicate a range of numbers. They can also serve as a sort of super-hyphen if you’re using an en dash for compound modifiers.
Here is an example of how you would use an en dash:
Example: The scheduled time for our appointment is 2:00–2:30 p.m.
You can also use en dashes to represent connections, conflicts, or directions between two compounds or words. Here are a few examples.
Em Dashes, En Dashes, and Hyphens
Note that both the em dash and the en dash differ entirely from a hyphen. Hyphens are used to join together multiple words such as compound nouns, compound modifiers, and compound numbers. However, don’t confuse hyphen use in a compound number—twenty-two, for example—with the use of an en dash in date ranges or time ranges as explained above.