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When to Use an Em Dash

Writers love em dashes. It’s not difficult to understand why—em dashes are versatile tools. Once you find out about these handy dashes, you may fall in love with them too. Table of contents

How to type an em dash

On computers, they’re easy to type—on a Mac, go for Shift+Option+Minus (-); on Windows use Ctrl+Alt+Minus (-).

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What is an em dash?

Em dashes differ from other hyphens and dashes not only in usage, which we will discuss shortly, but also in appearance. In fact, the em dash is named after its length—it’s about the same width as the capital letter m. Its alphabetical cousin, the en dash, is about the same width as the letter n. Figuratively speaking, the hyphen pulled the short end of the stick.

Use em dashes to set off parenthetical information

Em dashes are often used to set off parenthetical information. Using em dashes instead of parentheses puts the focus on the information between the em dashes.

For this usage, make sure you use two em dashes. Use one before the parenthetical information and one after it. Putting spaces before and after an em dash is a matter of preference; just be consistent. Consider the examples below for reference:

While I was shopping—wandering aimlessly up and down the aisles, actually—I ran into our old neighbor.

An etymological dictionary is one of the few books—no, it’s the only book—you’ll ever need.

There has recently been an increase—though opposed fiercely by many people—in alternative education practices.

He was going to call off the project—or was he?—when the client increased the payment.

Traveling—that is, traveling by public transit—can be a relaxing activity if you bring music and reading material along with you.

Use an em dash to set off appositives that contain commas

An appositive is a small section of extra information that is inserted into a sentence for clarification. Commas are usually used to offset the appositive, but if the appositive contains one or more commas, adding additional commas would be confusing for the reader. When using an appositive that contains a comma, offset it with dashes, instead.

Four of us—Mike, Amanda, Katy, and I—went to the conference last week.

Mr. M. glanced surreptitiously at his watch—his gold, diamond-encrusted watch—and suggested the meeting might adjourn for the day.

If you need something, call my assistant—Catherine, not Margaret—and she’ll help you.

Materialism—always wanting something more, something different—is good for the economy but bad for the soul.

The question words—who, what, when, where, why, and how—are used to retrieve information in English.

Use an em dash to bring focus to a list

When a sentence begins with an independent clause and ends with a list, you can use a colon between the clause and the list. When the list comes first, it’s better to use a dash to connect the list to the clause. This helps to take three potentially random things and focus them toward one idea, which is easier for the reader to process.

Dishes, laundry, dusting—they’re all done now, and I need a rest.

Crocodiles, alligators—they both look the same to me and they look equally dangerous!

Chocolate, strawberry, vanilla—all ice cream tastes good, especially on a hot summer’s day.

Do this, do that, go here, go there—there’s so much to do that I don’t actually get much accomplished during the day.

Use an em dash to mark sharp turns in thought

Em dashes can also signal an interruption or a sudden change in the direction a writer was heading with a particular sentence. This technique is best suited for creative or informal writing. If you use it in academic writing, you might look unsure of yourself. Consider the examples below:

Mary, could you—no, Mikey, don’t touch the sharp knife!—Mary, could you please set the table?

Dinner is at 6:30—not 6:29 or 6:31.

Where the heck is my—wait, what was I looking for?

Would you please—oh, never mind.

Em dash vs. en dash

En dashes are slightly shorter than em dashes. They also have a different function. The two main uses of en dashes are to indicate number ranges and to act as a kind of super-hyphen for compound modifiers.

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