Everyone’s got a favorite punctuation mark. As for me, I like the em dash. Seems like I often have something extra to say at the end of a sentence or find myself wanting to interject a thought between thoughts. I’ve got options, of course, but the em dash usually grabs my attention first. Em dashes are simple and clean, easy to type, and extremely versatile. They also make my writing flow the best. But take my advice: there are tricks to using the em dash effectively, and getting to know the ins and outs of this functionally fun punctuation mark is worth the effort if you want it to improve your writing.
What is the Em Dash?
The em dash is a dash that’s about as long as the letter m. Don’t mistake it with the en dash, which is shorter and typically used between numbers, dates, and times. It’s also not the same as a hyphen, the shortest dash and the one used in compound words.
While the em dash is often referred to as the long dash, it's a great way to bring tightness and focus to your sentences.
When is the Em Dash Appropriate?
If you’ve got an important detail you want to highlight or you want to show a sudden break in thought, the em dash may be just the ticket: Sarah decided to return the white dress—she never planned to keep it anyway—after her mother commented on how pale she looked.
It also works when adding a final thought: Eating healthy and staying fit and strong will improve your overall well-being—and keep you young at heart.
You might also use an em dash to set off an introductory series of nouns: Patience, empathy, and kindness—those were the virtues she preached the most.
Finally, em dashes make reading a sentence with other punctuation easier on the eyes: Fruits, vegetables, and protein—especially strawberries, cauliflower, and fish—are among her favorites.
Dos and Don’ts for Using the Em Dash
The em dash has a place in your writing, but it’s not always the right mark to use. Keep these dos and don’ts in mind:
- Do place the em dashes in the right spot. When used with an interjected idea, put dashes on either side. When used for a final thought, place the em dash directly before the thought.
- Do watch your spacing. Em dashes don’t need spaces between letters. Make them look neat on the page.
- Don’t use the em dash if parentheses or commas make more sense; for example, when a detail is minor and doesn’t need amplification.
- Don’t precede an em dash with a comma, colon, semicolon, or period. You may use a question mark or exclamation point, though: He made it on time—thank goodness!—and the meeting was a success.
- Don’t overuse the em dash. If your entire page is filled with them, they backfire and become hard on the eyes. Place them sparingly throughout a piece of writing. And never use two or more em dash clauses in the same sentence
Got a propensity for the em dash? Me too. Use it appropriately and intermittently and make the mark work to your advantage.