The Em Dash: What Is This Punctuation Mark And How Do You Use It?
If you’ve ever read modern fiction before, especially pieces written by an American author, you’ve probably noticed this ‘—’ symbol before.
A lot of people would mistake it for a hyphen, or a dash, but it’s actually a special kind of punctuation character that is separate from the others known as the em Dash.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the name, but you don’t understand the grammar rules or the situations where you’d use it in a piece of writing.
Either way, it can be an important tool in a writer’s toolbox and something that is important to know. But we know how difficult grammar rules can be to learn, especially when so many people use them differently.
How can you be sure to use an em Dash correctly? Where is the shortcut on a keyboard to place in your document? How necessary is it to use em Dashes in the first place? If you’re wondering about these questions then you don’t need to panic—you’ve come to the right place!
In this article, we’re going to be taking you through everything there is to know about em dashes. When to use them, some of the rules involved with them, and how you can find a shortcut on your word processor.
What Is An Em Dash?
Okay, so let’s start at the very beginning by defining exactly what an em dash is. An em dash is a longer kind of dash that can be used within both American and standard versions of English. It looks like this ‘—’.
One of the big difficulties when it comes to understanding what an em dash is used for is the fact that it is a uniquely versatile piece of punctuation.
At a fundamental level, an Em dash is used to create a strong break in the structure of a sentence. They are usually used in two different ways.
The first is in pairs—doing this right here can help you to segment a side piece of information—or they can be used to break a sentence into a separate section nearer the end. We’ll give you some concrete examples below.
First, let’s see how it can be used in a pair.
‘I love using em dashes—even if I don’t love studying grammar and punctuation—because you can do so much with them.’
Note how the em dash here functions similarly to how you would use either parenthesis or a pair of commas. In this example, an em dash is a great way of properly sectioning off a part of the sentence that you want to carry more weight.
It’s stronger than a pair of commas but flows more than parentheses.
Secondly, let’s see how an em dash can be used to end a sentence.
‘The amount you can do with em dashes is impressive—they are some of the most versatile punctuation you can use.’
Notice here how we only use one em dash, but it almost accomplishes the same as using two. In this scenario, an em dash is similar to a semicolon, only it’s a more definitive break.
There has been a lot of ink spilled about which one is better to use, but an em dash is a great way of making a point at the end of a sentence, or expanding on your writing with a separate—but related—phrase.
Em Dashes In Dialogue
If you’re writing any kind of dialogue, an em dash can also be used to indicate breaks in the speech of a character. This is a more specific use, but one that can be very effective if you’re trying to convey abrupt interruptions to the words somebody is saying.
Let’s take a look at what this would look like on a page:
“I’m tired,” she said, rubbing her temples with an open hand. “I’m so sick and tired of all of this—”
Her words were interrupted by a sudden, echoing crash down the hallway.
As you can see, the em dash helps you to create a sudden halt in the dialogue, which you can then expand upon with additional description to explain what has happened in the scene. You can also use one to indicate an interruption by another character, like so:
“I wish you wouldn’t talk over me! Every time I try to speak to you—”
“I wouldn’t have to interrupt if you listened properly,” he snapped.
Here the em dash signifies that the character’s speech is being interrupted by another, and you can indicate this by placing the other character’s dialogue on the next line.
Some authors choose to use additional dialogue tags to express this—for example ‘he interrupted’ or something similar—but most readers understand that the em dash signifies this interruption.
You can also use an em dash in dialogue to express the same things as you might in a regular sentence. One final example to explain here:
“We will go through the main gates of the castle,” he said. “There will be no fear—for there is no room for fear in the heart of a warrior—and we will make sure to defeat any who stand in our path.”
On a separate note, you can also use them this way in screenplays and other mediums of writing. You can also use when writing 1st person, stream-of-consciousness prose to signify a sudden change in emotion, mood, or thought pattern.
Hyphens And En Dashes
Okay, so we’ve defined what an em dash is, now let’s take a look at the other kidneys of punctuation that it is often mistaken for.
The real reason why em dashes are often seen as a complicated grammar symbol is that they are so closely related to their siblings, the hyphen and the en dash.
So let’s start with the en dash. That’s right—one is called En and one is called Em which can be really annoying to tell apart on a page. An en dash is used for a few different reasons and is much shorter than an em dash in form. It looks like this ‘–’ and is used in two distinct scenarios:
- Geological Points: For example when trying to explain a route between two locations ‘Take the New York–London flight today.’
- Number Ranges: You can use it to link a range of numbers, for example ‘It was between 1000–2000 words.’
A hyphen is also often mistaken for an em dash but is used very differently. Like the en dash, it can be used in a few separate scenarios that we’re going to outline for you below:
- To Separate Groups of Numbers: You’ve probably seen this if you’ve ever written down somebody’s telephone number. For example: “Call us on 999-9999.”
- Compound Adjectives: “A nine-tailed fox.”
- Compound Nouns: “No, that was my sister-in-law.”
A Good Way To Remember The Difference
So then, now that we’ve outlined the difference, let’s come up with a rule to help you remember. The easiest way to remember the differences between them is that the length of the line corresponds to what it’s used for.
A hyphen is for the smallest links between words and numbers. The slightly longer en dash is a mark that indicates a range, while an em dash is the longest and used to indicate a break or aside in a sentence or dialogue.
While it can be difficult to tell the difference on the page, it’s a good rule to keep in mind when you’re trying to decipher what the best piece of punctuation is to use.
How Can You Find An Em Dash On A Word Processor?
If you look down at your keyboard, there’s a good chance that you won’t see an em dash assigned to any of the keys. This is because it’s a newer and less-used piece of punctuation.
Because of this, you’re going to need to find a way to insert it into your documents where necessary. There are a few options for how to do this, and we’re going to highlight these below.
Method 1. Simple Copy And Paste
If you simply want to use an em dash once and can’t be bothered to learn a keybind or create a new one, then you can simply copy and paste it into your article. Here it is —.
Just copy and paste this and keep it copied to your clipboard, and from there you can simply left-click ‘paste’ on any windows PC, or use the shortcut Ctrl + V.
However, this isn’t the best way to do it if you’re thinking about using em dashes frequently throughout your document, and in this case, you’re going to want to find an easier way to add it.
Method 2. Keyboard Shortcuts
Next, we have a small shortcut that can help you place it within a document. It’s slightly different for PC and Mac so make sure you pay attention.
PC: alt + shift + hyphen.
Press these keys together and an em dash will be inserted into the space where you’re currently writing.
Mac: option + shift + hyphen.
Same as before, only swapping option for alt.
Method 3. Word Processor Options
Nowadays there are a dozen good word processors that you can use. Although many of them work in similar ways, you might have to fish a little to find the option you’re looking for.
However, most of these word processors (for example Word, Google Documents, and Open Office) have a symbols section where you can search for unique symbols and place them into a document.
To do this, simply go up to the ‘Insert’ section and click the ‘Special Characters’ option you’ll find in the dropdown menu. It could be called something different depending on the processor you’re using.
From here, you’ll find an array of symbols and a search bar. If you can’t find the em dash on the menu, simply search for it. From here, you’ll be able to click it to insert it into your document.
But here’s the thing, that’s not actually much better than using our copy and paste method from before. Fortunately, there is a way in most word processors to create custom keybinds.
Here you’ll be able to bind a key on your keyboard to insert and em dash whenever you want. We would suggest binding it to a key you don’t normally use for anything, else you’ll lose another command that could cause you some problems!
Method 4. Triple Key Press
The final method we have only works in certain word processors, but it’s a handy trick if you use Google docs to do your writing.
If you are to press the hyphen key three times in a row without spaces, you should be able to create an em dash. A first key press will give you a hyphen, a second an en dash, and a third will give you a beautiful em dash.
This can be an easy way to insert an em dash without breaking the flow of your writing.
Alternate/Advanced Uses Of The Em Dash
We’ve covered the main uses for an em dash within prose and dialogue, but there are a lot of different ways you can use it when compiling documents, or more unique sections of a story or novel.
The next few uses will be for more niche occasions but are worth keeping in mind if you want to master this punctuation mark.
One of the most common ways that people compose lists within a piece of writing is by using the colon. A colon is this symbol here ‘:’. In a piece of writing this looks something like the example below:
‘There are a lot of different types of punctuation: commas, full stops, hyphens, en dashes, em dashes, and semicolons.’
Here, the colon represents the beginning of a list. It’s probably the most common way to create one, but it’s important to note that an em dash can also be used for this same purpose. Let’s take a look at how that same sentence looks with an em dash in place of a colon:
‘There are a lot of different types of punctuation—commas, full stops, hyphens, en dashes, em dashes, and semicolons.’
This would work well too, but you could argue that it is a weaker grammatical choice than a colon. We’d generally suggest this if you’re looking to highlight this list as an aside within your prose. If you want it to be more pronounced, simply use a colon.
After A Quotation
You’ll see this most frequently at the beginning of novels where an author uses a quote from another work to preface their story. To give an example of this, let’s say that the author has chosen to begin their work with a quote from Charles Dickens.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
The em dash here is used to signify the author of the quote above. It’s quite a simple thing to do, and you can think of it as a big arrow that points to the author once the quote is done.
You can also use this within a piece of writing, and em dashes are sometimes used like this in the place of footnotes or references within academic pieces of writing.
As Quotation Marks
The early 20th century brought us some great experiments in literature, with modernist authors using different techniques to try and convey realism.
One of the best examples of this is the author James Joyce, renowned—or infamous depending on your opinion—for breaking the mold of literary and grammatical conventions to create emotion within his novels.
We’re going to quickly show you two different examples of dialogue, one with classic quotation marks, and the other using the em dash.
“Hello, how are you doing?”
“I’m doing fine thank you.”
“The weather is lovely today.”
As you can see this is all fairly standard. However, some more experimental or avante-garde authors use em dashes to signify a dialogue. If we were to employ this to our boring dialogue above we would get:
—Hello, how are you doing?
—I’m doing fine thank you.
—The weather is lovely today.
So you can see how it works—but you might be wondering why anyone would choose to use this. Well, the most important thing to know here is that this is not standard grammar and you should avoid using it.
In the case of James Joyce, for example, he uses them as a matter of style. Modernist works of fiction are all about creating realism, and this is one of the small things he does to achieve this.
By using em dashes in the place of quotation marks, Joyce is showing how the dialogue flows in a real-life situation.
In Conclusion: How Important Are Em Dashes?
So then, we come to the end of our exploration into the em dash and when you might want to use it. The question you may find yourself asking at this point is: just how important are em dashes to use?
There’s a good chance that you rarely use them in your writing, and you might be wondering if they are a type of punctuation that you should begin to use more often.
The answer is that it really depends on both what you are writing and your individual style. Grammar can be seen as a set of tools for a writer to use.
Em dashes aren’t going to automatically make your writing seem more complex, especially if you use them incorrectly. You can write an entire novel without them if you wish, or one with many.
If you want to get more used to inserting em dashes into your writing, the best advice we can give you is to simply use them often, then to look back to see if they fit. Often, an em dash can simply be replaced by a comma or other punctuation mark.
The more you use them—and the more you look out for them when you’re reading—the more you’ll start to get an instinctual feel for where they fit in a piece of writing.
We’d like to leave you with a more general piece of writing advice to do with grammar.
Grammar, especially when it comes to fiction or prose, is not a strict ruleset.
For example, if we were to tell you that there is a novel that uses no quotation marks or punctuation other than commas, full stops, and capital letters, you’d likely think that the author was new to grammar.
But this is the exact style of the American legend Cormac McCarthy, who uses minimal grammar in order to create a specific style.
The best thing you can do is to choose the right grammar for the piece you are writing. Providing you do this, you’re always going to produce something that looks professional and measured.
We hope that this article has given you a good understanding of how em dashes work and how you can insert them into your word processor and that you’re now a lot more confident in learning to use them.
We wish you the best of luck in your future writing, and hope you can use an em dash soon to maximum effect!
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Stuart Conover is a father, husband, published author, blogger, geek, entrepreneur, horror fanatic, and runs a few websites including Horror Tree!
Are the usage rules for the M dash the same in American and British English? A proofreader told me that they’re different, just as comma rules differ. Apparently American English uses M dashes sometimes where British English requires an N dash – and I can’t make sense of it.