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When to Use an Em Dash

For professional writing, there are lots of punctuation marks that you can use to elevate your writing. You’re probably already familiar with commas, periods, question marks, and exclamation points. But, do you know how and when to use an em dash? It can be a powerful tool in your writing when you use it in one of the following four ways:

1. Setting Off an Appositive

An appositive is a noun or pronoun used to describe another noun or pronoun. Usually, you set these apart with a set of commas or parentheses. However, you can also use an em-dash. By doing this, you emphasize the appositive. So, you can determine whether to use an em-dash by deciding whether you want to emphasize the description to the reader. Check out these examples:

  • Listening to some of his favorite rock bands—The Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters, and Led Zeppelin—helped him prepare for a long day of work.
  • Brody crashed his bike—a $1500 Radrove Electric Fat Bike—on his way to the grocery store.

In both examples, you could set the information apart with commas or parentheses; however, I chose to use em-dashes instead to emphasize the information. If you choose to do this, make sure that the first em-dash is directly after the noun it’s describing.

2. Listing Items

A colon is often used to introduce a list in writing. If your writing is more casual, you can also choose to use an em-dash. This can also be a great way to create dramatic flair. For example:

  • As Jack drove into the darkness, his mind kept wandering to one person—Shannon.
  • Chocolate, vanilla, Rocky Road—all ice cream flavors taste good on a hot summer day.

3. Combining Two Independent Clauses

Some of the most common ways to combine two independent clauses are with

    1. A comma and conjunction. For example:
    Douglas went to the store, but he forgot his shopping list.
    2. A semi-colon. For example:
    She has a big test tomorrow; she can’t go to the movie tonight.
    3. An em-dash. For example:
    Robert is going bald—his hair is slowly falling out.
    Rachel missed the last step—she has a cast on her left arm now.

Just make sure that the clauses are complete sentences on their own and are closely related to each other.

4. Changing One’s Thought Process

When writing fiction or other informal writing, you may find a time that you have a sharp turn in thought. That is the perfect time to use an em dash. Some examples of this include:

  • “Where is my—oh, here it is!” she exclaimed.
  • Our lunch meeting is at noon—not 11:30.

When to Use an Em Dash: Conclusion

When you’re thinking about when to use an em dash, remember that it’s used for emphasis. Therefore, you shouldn’t get in the habit of using it too often. If your writing is filled with em dashes, you won’t be able to bring attention to any one particular point. However, when you use em dashes correctly, you will be able to elevate your writing and impress your readers.

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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