There seems to be a little bit of confusion in the writing world about the infamous em dash. Recently, I was part of a discussion on Twitter with other authors who seem to think the usage of the em dash is either sloppy or lazy. As an em dash proponent, I decided to take the time to explain to you, my reader, what the em dash is, how it differs from the shorter en dash or hyphen, and how it is used in fiction. For all you em dash lovers out there, keep reading—you might just learn something new about our beloved controversial punctuation mark.
What do the experts say?
The Chicago Manual of Style says an em dash is “used to set off an amplifying or explanatory element and in that sense can function as an alternative to parentheses, commas, or a colon—especially when an abrupt break in thought is called for.” What this fancy language means is that you can swap out your comma, colon, semicolon, and even a period for an em dash. CMOS also states, “An em dash or a pair of em dashes may indicate a sudden break in thought or sentence structure or an interruption in dialogue.” This is a bit of a fun lesson I’ll get to in a moment.
How are you supposed to use it?
The em dash, while very versatile, has very specific usages in proper grammar. It can be used in place of the comma or colon to place an emphasis on the material that follows it. For example: Jenny said, “Marty was tall—incredibly tall.” As you can see, Marty made a huge impact on Jenny, so much so that she had to emphasize exactly how tall her friend was.
- The em dash can also be used to join two sentences similar to the semicolon but indicating a much stronger connection or an emphasis on the second sentence. For example: Jim had a very large, rotund abdomen—he was the fattest man at the party!
- The em dash can be used to show interruption in dialogue. For example:
“Have you seen—” “I haven’t seen your horn!” Mom shouted from the other room.
- It can also be used to show that dialogue can be interrupted by action:
“There is a strong high-pressure front—” the meteorologist waved his hand across the green screen “—moving across the Midwest.”
- Or it can show an action that occurs simultaneously as the dialogue is occurring:
“Vivan, please”—Karen pointed at the ground—“do not jump on the furniture.”
Not all dashes are the same!
It is interesting to note in British English, used by most authors in Canada, the UK, and Australia, as well as some other countries, the en dash is used in place of the em dash.
On that note, I want to point out that the en dash, while very similar to the em dash, is shorter and has a very distinct and different purpose. The en dash is used to signify passage of time (1991–1998) or a space in a sequence of numbers that includes every number in between the two listed. For example: Gen 2:13–16. Most people make the mistake of using the hyphen, which is typically used only to make compound nouns or adjectives.
How do you make all the dashes?
Each one has a shortcut on the keyboard when using MS Word, which is the preferred software of most editors. The hyphen is formed by using the minus key either on the number pad or next to the zero on the keyboard. The en dash is formed by holding the ctrl button (option on Mac) and pressing the minus key on the number pad, and the em dash can be formed by holding the ctrl button and the alt button and pressing the minus key on the number pad. Another way to make an em dash is to press and hold Alt, then type 0151 for PC, and shift + option + hyphen for Mac.
Whether you are a fan of the em dash or not, it is valuable piece of punctuation. It serves a very specific purpose and has several uses that can help bring more structure to your writing—after this article you may agree!
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“6.85–6:94” “6.78–6.84” Chicago Manual of Style, The University of Chicago, 2017, www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/book/ed17/part1/ch02/psec014.html.