What is an Em dash and how to use it?

The em dash is a punctuation mark that can be used to add emphasis or create an abrupt change in thought. Despite its seemingly prevalent usage, many of us continue to struggle with when and how to use it correctly. If you find yourself wondering what an em dash is and how it should be used, then this blog post is for you!

In this post, we’ll explain the basics of the em dash, and delve into when and how you can use it. We’ll also discuss some common mistakes people make when using the em dash so that you can avoid them in your writing. Let’s get started!

  • What is the em dash?
  • What is the purpose of an em dash?
  • How to use an em dash in writing?
  • Em dash vs En dash
  • Examples of correct usage of an em dash 
  • Common mistakes to avoid using an em dash

What is an em dash?

An em dash is an underused punctuation mark that, when used correctly, can spruce up a writing piece and add clarity to difficult-to-convey thoughts. An em dash is three times the length of a regular hyphen and looks like a long dash or line between two words. 

Em dash and the parenthesis

An em dash often replaces parenthesis because it can be used to break up parts of sentences as well as enhance the description. An example of using an em dash would be: “My best friend—we’ve been friends since childhood—bought me lunch today.” The advantage of using the extra length of an em dash is that it shows a pause with greater emphasis than brackets.

What is the purpose of an em dash?

The em dash is an incredibly versatile punctuation tool that has long held a special place in the hearts of writers. Originally derived from the typewriters of years past, an em dash is usually twice as long as hyphens and commas and has significantly evolved over the years since its inception.  

A little insight into the etymology of the em dash

The fascination with the em-dash

Without an em dash, many sentences would have been incoherent before their insertion; it has been said that an em dash offers an effective pause in a sentence when commas simply don’t do as good of a job. It was no surprise then that two of the literary greats—F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway—were both known for making use of an em dash extensively throughout their writings. As writers continue to push boundaries and strive for more fluidity of expression, the purposeful use of an em dash will remain vital for those who wish to unearth techniques rarely explored by most contemporary storytellers.

a meme on what is an em dash and when to use it
This one will never get old

How to use an em dash in writing?

An em dash is an integral part of writing. It provides a strong emphasis to the statement that follows and gives it more weight than other punctuation marks might. Writers should consider using an em dash whenever they want readers to pay special attention to the words that come next.

Explanation with an example:

For example, if a writer wants to provide clarification about a term in the middle of a sentence, using an em dash lets readers know that what follows is particularly important. Additionally, using an em dash allows writers to insert parenthetical material in the middle of sentences. Doing so can be helpful if a sentence has many complex components, as using an em dash enables the writer to insert information without disrupting the overall flow of their narrative.

That never-ending question of a writer

When using an em dash, writers should consider using no more than two in an entire sentence or paragraph as they may become tedious and detract from the overall meaning. 

An effective way to use an em dash is to bridge two independent clauses when there is a need for greater clarity and explanation — this technique creates suspense or introduces a different thought, often with a sudden shift in direction which keeps readers engaged. Hence, using an em dash offers authors flexibility and the chance to express their ideas with impactful phrases that pull readers into their writing.

Em dash vs En dash

The em dash and the en dash are two useful punctuation marks with different roles. An em dash (—) is wider in width than an en dash (-); it’s three to four hyphens placed side by side. The em dash can be used to indicate a break in thought or sentence structure. 

It is a simple distinction, read on to understand

It can also be used instead of a comma, colon, or parentheses when introducing or providing further information while speaking naturally. An en dash (–), on the other hand, indicates a range; for example, using it in place of the words “from…to” when writing dates. 

Remember this:

To remember the distinction between the two dashes, you can think of using an em dash when explaining something and using an en dash in place of certain words. Utilizing these punctuation marks wisely can help improve your writing and make it much more interesting!

Examples of correct usage of an em dash 

An em dash (—) is the longest of the three dashes and can be used to set off a break in the sentence, as well as add emphasis. To properly use the em dash, spaces should not be placed around it unless the text is being italicized. When the dash is used, the change in the thought or sentence structure should be evident and distinct. 

Explanation  with an example:

For instance, a right usage of an em dash occurs when a disclaimer or aside needs to be noted within the sentence; something like “Her love — which she had many doubts about — became stronger every day.” Here, the em dash enforces the idea that her love was growing despite her reservations about it. When used correctly and consciously, an em dash can become an invaluable punctuation mark for any writer!

Common mistakes to avoid using an em dash

It’s common to see em dashes used to create dramatic pauses or draw emphasis to certain points in writing, but unless a writer is aware of the common mistakes that come with it, their work can be marred with incorrect punctuation. One common mistake is using an em dash either before or after quotation marks. 

The proper setup is for the quotation mark to come first, followed by the em dash.

Another common pitfall is for writers to use multiple em dashes consecutively instead of replacing some of them with commas and semicolons. To get the most out of the effect and keep your writing sensible, replace some of your consecutive em dashes with those other punctuation marks. Lastly, since it’s not technically classed as punctuation, don’t forget to include spaces on either side of the em dash when using it correctly.

Keep all that in mind when using em dashes, and you should have no problem getting their correct usage into your writing!


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