The ‘Em Dash’: A Versatile Grammar Tool You Can Use Today!

Dash Sybmol

Click below to listen to a recording of this passage.

 

Ah, the “em dash”. Every language has two paths, evolution or death. Evolving languages change with widespread use and new events and technology. 

Over the last century, television and the internet sped up this natural evolution within every language, and that’s especially true for English. In fact, they update the Oxford Dictionary four times every year just to keep up!

But, what does that have to do with the em dash?—I’m getting there!

Since the Internet took hold of our lives, punctuation in writing has become a contentious issue. Hundreds of thousands of bloggers and writers—some formally trained in writing, and some obviously not—now have a global platform where they can display content.

With this endless stream of content, many of the oldest grammar and punctuation debates have now resurfaced. And the use of the dash, or more specifically, the em dash has been one of the most talked about grammar topics of the 21st century.

In this blog, we will reveal (make known) and break down the rules of when and when not and where to use an em dash.

(Prefer to watch this lesson on video? Here’s our full length tutorial on how to use the phrase ‘The Em Dash’):

‘The Em Dash’:

What is an Em Dash?

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Ben Yagoda, a professor of English at the University of Delaware, called the em dash “the most versatile piece of punctuation” in the English language. I’m purposefully using them a lot in this article to show that versatility (able to adapt to many different functions). 

First, let’s distinguish an em dash from both an en dash and a hyphen

An em dash is different in both usage and appearance, and it’s easy to confuse the three forms of punctuation as a writer uses the same or similar keys to create all three. We’ll dig deeper into the differences between the three, but for now let’s just look at the appearance.

From a typography (the style of printed material) standpoint, the em dash is a combination of three hyphens which measure at the length of the letter “M” in print. Therefore we call the mark an “em” dash. An “en” dash measures at the length of the letter “N”, and a hyphen is just a hyphen.

To make the mark on a Mac, type Shift + Option + Minus (-), and on Windows, use Ctrl + Alt + Minus (-).

 

When and Where To Use An Em Dash

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Now that we know how to make the mark, let’s look at its usage. An em dash can be used in place of parentheses, commas, colons, or quotation marks or to show interruption, omission (exclusion), or amplification (expansion) in a sentence. Let’s look at some examples we saw earlier in the blog:

 

  • But, what does that have to do with the em dash?—I’m getting there! Amplification

 

  • Hundreds of thousands of bloggers and writers—some formally trained in writing, and some obviously not—now have a global platform where they can display content. Parenthesis

 

Note: We primarily use an em dash in informal writing. Sometimes you’ll use one in formal (business or legal) writing, and we’ll cover that in this article. However, it’s not as common.

Parenthetical Information

Many writers use em dashes to set off information they would separate using parentheses if writing formally. It helps to put a focus on the nonessential information and is typically used when there is a comma within the information—but not always.

Think of it this way: an em dash helps the reader to keep focus on your thought when a parenthesis might show a full shift in thought.

When using an em dash in this manner, be sure to put an em dash on both sides of the information just as you would open and close parenthetical information with a parenthesis. 

There is an argument in the grammar community over whether or not to put a space before an after an em dash, but ultimately it is a personal choice. However, be consistent with your choice. 

 

Examples:

  • When I was running this morning—speed walking would be a better word, actually—I saw a herd of deer crossing the road.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People is one of the best books—really, the only book you need—about expanding your network.
  • During this period, there was a decline—exacerbated by a financial scandal in the automotive industry—in the number of new employees hired by businesses in the Midwest.
  • The Beatles title track on Help!—a commercially successful but albeit, often forgotten, song when compared to Yesterdaywas nominated for four Grammy Awards in 1965.

Appositive Phrases

Appositives phrases are clauses we use within a sentence to clarify information or rename something. In most styles of writing, you use commas to set off a nonessential appositive phrase, but there is an exception that can be used with both formal and informal writing. If the appositive phrase itself requires a comma, then you can use an em dash to set off the whole phrase.

 

Examples:

  • Since 1997 it has been the opinion of most industry leaders—banking, automotive, retail, technology, transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing—that the Federal Reserve needs to lower interest rates.
  • If you need anything when you arrive, please contact my assistant—Mary, our office assistant; not Brittany, my personal assistant—and she can assist you.
  • Sherlock Holmes—the famous fictional detective who examined, investigated, and solved crimes—was penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Emphasis and Interruption

Using an em dash for emphasis or an interruption is considered a stylistic choice and is reserved for informal or narrative writing. This is the usage you see in many casually written articles and perhaps in some novels or poetry from some famous writers like Emily Dickenson, R.L. Stine, or Stephen King.

Em dashes like these bring the attention or focus of the reader to a certain piece of information and can take the place of commas in a nonessential appositive phrase. The difference is that the writer really wants the reader to focus on that information. 

Another form of an em dash for emphasis, comes at the end of a sentence and acts as a harsher form of a comma or colon.

They can also act as an interrupter or break or trailing off in thought or action. This sometimes comes in the form of very quick change in thought or action. And in addition, writers can also use em dashes to show an interruption when a person or character is speaking. 

Look at these examples to see the em dash used in each of these forms.

 

Emphasis:

  • When hiking in the woods—always, always, always!—bring an extra pair of socks.
  • I saw the ball drop and looked around the room to see everyone kissing, and that’s when I knew—it was New Year’s Day.
  • After months and months of deliberation, his mom sat back in her chair for she had heard the one word that could bring a mother of an accused victim some sense of relief—innocent.

 

Interruption:

  • She kept looking around the house—what was it she was looking for?—for what seemed like an eternity.
  • “I can’t stan—” “No! Don’t say another word!” he exclaimed.
  • “Where are you go—” BAM! Suddenly a large explosion from behind the building cut her question off.
  • “John, could you just—I don’t know—go take a walk or something?”

Omission

Using an em dash as an omission has two purposes and this is where the mark is typically used in business or legal writing. It can either show an unknown or purposefully omitted word in a formal document. 

When used in this case, you’ll see one or two dashes in place of missing letters or you may see three dashes in a row to show a full missing word.

 

Example:

  • Mr. — —  indicated that he was the one who filed the complaint.
  • The man was yelling from the bottom of the ravine, so we couldn’t hear him. We could only make out, “H—p! I n—d h—!”

The Em Dash or the En Dash?—That Is the Question

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Now that you’ve seen all of the ways you can use an em dash, let’s look at when to use the en dash

It’s simple, the en dash only has two uses in writing. To indicate a span or range of numbers or to denote a connection between two words.

 

Examples:

  • These are the pictures from the 2019–2020 school year.
  • The score stood at 102–98.
  • The Team Michael–Team Jennifer dynamic has been confusing for their friends.
  • The whole pro-bill–anti-bill debate has divided the country.

 

With these rules and examples, you’re now equipped to use the em dash as you please. Just remember not to overdo it with this versatile writing tool and that we reserve them mainly for informal writing. 

As always, for all things English grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, and business English, visit the Magoosh English Speaking Blog!