When to use—and not use—an em-dash

There are two types of dash. The en dash is approximately the length of the letter n, and the em dash the length of the letter m.

  • The shorter en dash (–) is used to mark ranges.
  • The longer em dash (—) is used to separate extra information or mark a break in a sentence.

The en dash is sometimes also used in the same way as an em dash; in this case, it takes  a space on either side.

Make sure not to confuse dashes with shorter hyphens (-), which are used to combine words (as in well-behaved or long-running). A hyphen should not be used in place of a dash.

The em dash: marking a break in a sentence

Em dashes can be used in pairs to mark off additional information that is not essential to understand of the sentence. Here they function similarly to parentheses or a pair of commas. Don’t put a space on either side of an em dash:

Dark, leafy greens—such as spinach, kale, and chard—are an important part of a healthy diet.Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

An em dash can also be used to mark a break in a sentence in place of a semicolon or colon. In this context, dashes are often used for emphasis or to signal a change in tone:

There was no arguing with her—she was set in her opinion.

Note, however, that dashes used in this way are considered more informal than other punctuation marks, so should be used sparingly and selectively in academic writing.

The en dash: marking a range

The en dash is used to indicate a range of numbers or a span of time. You can read it as representing “to” or “through”:

The company had a successful 2018–2019 fiscal year.This job demands frequent evening and weekend work in addition to regular 9:00am–5:00pm hours.The document was heavily redacted, with pages 46–52 removed altogether.

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When to Use—and Not Use—an Em-Dash

Using en dashes in place of em dashes

Don’t Let the Em Dash Confuse You, Here’s How to Use It

by Debra

  • Punctuation.
  • I can visualize readers cringing as they read that word.
  • “I don’t understand all those rules and I don’t want to.”
  • “Let editors worry about the correct punctuation.”
  • “I just want to write, not worry about where to put a comma.”

Do you see yourself in the above sentences? If you don’t, you are probably in the minority.

The comma, period, colon, em dash, and all those other punctuation marks have their function. I think the only one that doesn’t confuse writers is the period.

Lately, I’ve noticed people incorrectly using the em dash, so I thought I would address it today.

This dash is so named because it is the same width as the letter m. You create it by typing two dashes together without any space between them. Most word processing programs will then autoformat it once you hit the next key.

In MS Word and Scrivener (for Windows), the keyboard shortcut is Alt + 0151 (I love keyboard shortcuts).

The Em Dash

Do not use an em dash as you would a comma.

The em dash indicates a dramatic shift in tone or thought within a sentence.

Example: His marriage proposal—would she say no?—got caught in his throat as he began.

When used in pairs, the portion set off by the em dash gets the most emphasis. In other words, it stands out as the most important part of the sentence.

The em dash can also be used as a single dash. His marriage proposal got caught in his throat before he began—would she say no?

Use it in dialog when you want to indicate an interruption.

“Of course she’ll—”
“Say yes,” John finished Mickey’s sentence.

Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference states the em dash “is the most dramatic punctuation mark you can deploy within the interior of a sentence. Use it sparingly.”

When to Use Commas, Colons, Semicolons, and Dashes

Knowing which punctuation to apply within sentences can be confusing. But rules are important and made to be followed, especially in academic writing. Putting a comma between two independent clauses will confuse your readers and make your work frustrating to read.

On the other hand, a well-placed semi-colon can add nuance and subtlety to any kind of writing. Keep the following rules in mind when choosing to use a comma (,), colon (:), semicolon (;), or dash (—).

When to Use a Comma

Commas are the most frequently used (and abused) punctuation mark in most kinds of writing. The reason for this is that they have so many uses and so many rules—it can be hard to keep track of them all. Let’s take a look at just a few of the comma’s crucial functions and discuss when to choose a comma over another similar punctuation mark.

To list items or short phrases:

I bought bread, cheese, and pickles at the grocery store

To separate long independent clauses when conjunctions connect them:

Astronomers have known about the positions of stars for centuries, but they didn’t understand that the earth revolves around the sun

After an introductory phrase:

In preparation for the next convention, the representatives studied up on the most important issues

To separate a parenthetical phrase or interrupter:

All doctors, if they care about their patients, are concerned with good office hygiene

Common Comma Mistakes

Comma splice. Do NOT use a comma to divide two independent clauses without a conjunction

Incorrect: Thousands of protesters showed up on the streets, they were shouting and carrying large posters

Correct: Thousands of protesters showed up on the streets; they were shouting and carrying large posters

Combining lengthy phrases. Using commas with compound sentences or to separate clauses with other commas can cause confusion. Use a semicolon

Incorrect: Some useful subjects are English, which is an international language, math, which is used in all domains of sciences and social sciences, and philosophy, which underpins many other areas of study

Correct: Some useful subjects are English, which is an international language; math, which is used in all sciences and social sciences; and philosophy, which underpins many other areas of study

When to Use a Colon

A colon is used to make lists and tell the reader, “This is what I mean.” The colon should not be used often in most kinds of writing unless there are extensive lists involved. The rules of the colon are strict but fairly easy to remember.

See also:  And/or

To introduce an item or series of items:

Humans use five major senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch

To separate independent clauses when the second clause/sentence illustrates, explains, paraphrases, or expands on the first:

Martha realized that her worst fear was coming true: her son was being sent to war

*The information after the colon explains Martha’s fear in the form of an independent clause.

To follow the salutation in a business letter or more formal letter:

To the Central Valley Committee Chairman:

More Tips For Using Colons

Do not capitalize the first word after the colon unless it is a proper noun, is part of a quote, or is the first in a series of sentences:

Incorrect: I have three desires: To eat, sleep, and work

Correct: I have three desires: to eat, sleep, and work

When a quotation contains multiple sentences, many writers prefer to introduce it with a colon rather than a comma:

In Chapter 3, the author explains his theory: “Dogs have dreams, but they don’t dream as humans do. Their dreams reflect a primal desire for pleasure, whereas humans are preoccupied with the ego and self-image. This is equally true in wakefulness and sleep.”

A complete sentence after the colon is not necessary—a word or phrase is fine

There is one mantra that can sum up our position towards climate change: urgent action

Common Colon Mistakes

Separating two clauses that have equal rank or unrelated information:

Incorrect: Sarah and her friends loved spending time on the mountain: nature always held a special meaning for them

Correct: Sarah and her friends loved spending time on the mountain; nature always held a special meaning for them

(*Use a period if the clauses are not at all related. Use a semi-colon if the information in the second clause is somewhat related but does not illustrate, explain, or paraphrase the first clause.)

Overusing the colon:

The colon is a powerful punctuation mark and should be used sparingly. Think of it as a stop sign that calls readers’ attention and says, “Hey! Pay attention to this. This is important.” If there are too many stop signs on a street, you won’t be able to drive very smoothly or quickly. This is the same effect colons can have upon readers.

Because colons are so attention-grabbing, they can clearly indicate which information is important. For this reason, many authors use colons to introduce their main argument or supporting evidence.

When to Use a Semicolon

When to Use an Em Dash – Professional Writing

For professional writing, there are lots of punctuation marks that you can use to elevate your writing. You’re probably already familiar with commas, periods, question marks, and exclamation points. But, do you know how and when to use an em dash? It can be a powerful tool in your writing when you use it in one of the following four ways:

1. Setting Off an Appositive

An appositive is a noun or pronoun used to describe another noun or pronoun. Usually, you set these apart with a set of commas or parentheses. However, you can also use an em-dash. By doing this, you emphasize the appositive. So, you can determine whether to use an em-dash by deciding whether you want to emphasize the description to the reader. Check out these examples:

  • Listening to some of his favorite rock bands—The Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters, and Led Zeppelin—helped him prepare for a long day of work.
  • Brody crashed his bike—a $1500 Radrove Electric Fat Bike—on his way to the grocery store.

In both examples, you could set the information apart with commas or parentheses; however, I chose to use em-dashes instead to emphasize the information. If you choose to do this, make sure that the first em-dash is directly after the noun it’s describing.

2. Listing Items

A colon is often used to introduce a list in writing. If your writing is more casual, you can also choose to use an em-dash. This can also be a great way to create dramatic flair. For example:

  • As Jack drove into the darkness, his mind kept wandering to one person—Shannon.
  • Chocolate, vanilla, Rocky Road—all ice cream flavors taste good on a hot summer day.

3. Combining Two Independent Clauses

Some of the most common ways to combine two independent clauses are with

    1. A comma and conjunction. For example: Douglas went to the store, but he forgot his shopping list.
    2. A semi-colon. For example: She has a big test tomorrow; she can’t go to the movie tonight.
    3. An em-dash. For example: Robert is going bald—his hair is slowly falling out.Rachel missed the last step—she has a cast on her left arm now.

Just make sure that the clauses are complete sentences on their own and are closely related to each other.

4. Changing One’s Thought Process

When writing fiction or other informal writing, you may find a time that you have a sharp turn in thought. That is the perfect time to use an em dash. Some examples of this include:

  • “Where is my—oh, here it is!” she exclaimed.
  • Our lunch meeting is at noon—not 11:30.
See also:  How to multiply a fraction by another fraction

When to Use an Em Dash: Conclusion

When you’re thinking about when to use an em dash, remember that it’s used for emphasis. Therefore, you shouldn’t get in the habit of using it too often. If your writing is filled with em dashes, you won’t be able to bring attention to any one particular point. However, when you use em dashes correctly, you will be able to elevate your writing and impress your readers.

En Dash and Em Dash

The hyphen, the em dash, and the en dash are all horizontal marks of varying lengths. Each functions differently from the others. Below we define each mark, explain when to use them, and provide instructions for typing them on both PCs and Macs. (View our new mini-lesson video on this topic.)

The Hyphen

The hyphen is the shortest of the three marks, and we use it most commonly to combine words (making compounds such as “well-being” and “advanced-level,” for example) and to separate numbers that are not inclusive (in phone numbers and Social Security numbers, for example).

On computer keyboards, the hyphen appears on the bottom half of the key located on the top row between the “0” and the equals mark (=).

Correct hyphenation is often a complicated issue. Elsewhere on this site, we discuss the use of hyphens to create compound words and hyphenated adjectives. Here, however, our focus is on the two kinds of dashes.

The Em Dash

When we hear the term dash, most of us picture the em dash. It is significantly longer than the hyphen.

We use the em dash to create a strong break in the structure of a sentence. We can use these dashes in pairs, as we would use parentheses—that is, to enclose a word, or a phrase, or a clause (as we’ve done here)—or they can be used alone to detach one end of a sentence from its main body.

Dashes are particularly useful in a sentence that is long and complex or in one that contains a number of commas, as in this example:

  • We bought markers, paper, pens, and tablets—all of which were on sale, of course—for our clients to use in the courtroom.

If we confuse the em dash with the hyphen, we make a sentence virtually impossible to read. If we had used a hyphen in place of each dash two sentences ago, it would seem as though we had hyphenated two pairs of words in the sentence: “tablets-all” and “course-for,” neither of which makes any sense.

Em Dashes, Parentheses, or Commas?

A good rule of thumb is to reserve em dashes for those places where the comma simply doesn’t provide a strong enough break. If a comma (or a pair of them) works, use it.

Parentheses tend to downplay an idea; they suggest that the information in them is helpful but not necessary. Em dashes draw attention to the information they enclose or set apart. Typically the writer is telling the reader that the information being set off by em dashes is important.

The En Dash

The en dash is slightly longer than the hyphen but not as long as the em dash. (A common myth holds that the en dash is, in fact, the width of a typesetter’s letter “N,” whereas the em dash is the width of the letter “M”—thus their names. In fact, an em is a typographical unit of measurement.)

The en dash means, quite simply, “through.” We use it most commonly to indicate inclusive dates and numbers: July 9–August 17; pp. 37–59.

Many people were not even aware of the distinction between the en dash and the em dash until the advent of word processors, when software programs enabled us to use marks of punctuation that once had been available only to professional printers.

Important: Spacing with Hyphens and Dashes

When using the hyphen, the en dash, or the em dash, most—but not all—style books advocate putting space neither before nor after them. The Associated Press style (always the outlier) insists on spacing both before and after the em dash.

One exception is, of course, when the hyphen is used as a minus sign. The other exception is with a hanging hyphen (see, for example, the word “nineteenth” in the phrase “nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature”). By definition, a hanging hyphen will have a space after it but not before it.

Typing the En Dash and Em Dash on PCs and Macs

Computer keyboards lack individual keys for either of the dashes. (The symbol above the hyphen is an underline, not a dash.) Before word processing, we had to make an em dash by typing two hyphens. Now we have options.

Note that not all keyboards around the world are the same. Our readers outside the U.S. tell us that they don’t have the following shortcuts on their keyboards.  That said, here are guidelines for typing on many keyboards:

  • On both PCs and Macs, two hyphens (typed with no space before or after either of them) will convert to an em dash—the full-length one that most of us think of when we hear the word “dash.”
  • We can also choose en and em dashes from a menu of symbols that do not appear on the keyboard. In Microsoft Word, for example, we can pull down the “Insert” window, click on “Symbol,” and go to the “normal text” window. The en and em dashes appear on the bottom row.
  • In any software program that handles text, the em dash can be typed on an enhanced keyboard as Alt + 0151—that is, hold down the “alternate” key and, using the numerical pad on the right side of the keyboard, type the numbers 0151. The en dash can be typed as Alt + 0150.
  • Mac users also have another option: For an em dash, simultaneously press the shift, option, and minus keys. For an en dash, press the option and minus keys.
See also:  3 tricks to improve your vocabulary

British (and Canadian) Usage vs. American

British/Canadian style guides seem wildly inconsistent on the issue of the em and en dash.

Some say to use the en dash instead of the em dash, while others go so far as to advocate using the hyphen, advice that would lead to confusion for readers, as we have noted above.

Our British and Canadian readers—and, indeed, any English-speaking reader outside the U.S.—should consult the style manual to which they default.

The esteemed Oxford University Press style guide explains how to use both the em and en dashes, so we can assume that at least this authoritative source advocates using both.

TEST YOURSELF

Can you spot any errors in the use of the hyphen, the en dash, or the em dash in the following sentences?

  1. The instructions were written on pages 33-47.
  2. The conference will be held June 30 – July 2 on Hilton Head Island.
  3. Juan had tried begging, bribing, and even demanding cooperation from his staff-all of whom were swamped with other work-before he gave up and wrote the report himself.
  4. No one – not even the president – realized the company would have to dissolve so quickly.

ANSWERS

  1. The instructions were written on pages 33–47. [Use an en dash, not a hyphen, to indicate inclusive page numbers.]
  2. The conference will be held June 30–July 2 on Hilton Head Island. [Use an en dash to indicate inclusive dates. Do not space before or after dashes except in AP Style.

    ]

  3. Juan tried begging, bribing, and even demanding cooperation from his staff—all of whom were swamped with other work—before he gave up and wrote the report himself. [Use em dashes, not hyphens, to indicate a break in thought.

    ]

  4. No one—not even the president—realized the company would have to dissolve so quickly. [Use em dashes, not hyphens, to show a break in thought. Do not space before or after dashes.]

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© 2002 Get It Write. Revised 2019.

Em Dash

Writers love em dashes as much as hunters love Swiss army knives. It’s not difficult to understand why. Like the utilitarian knife, em dashes are versatile tools. Once you find out about these handy dashes, you may fall in love with them too.

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

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