What is an em dash (—) and how do you use it? Em dashes are confusing because they look similar to en dashes and hyphens, but they behave similarly to a range of other punctuation marks depending on the sentence. This can make understanding em dashes especially difficult. This guide will take you through what an em dash is and how to use them correctly in different sentences to make using em dashes (long dash) in your own writing a little more accessible.
The Em Dash (—)
What Is an Em Dash?
An em dash (—) is a punctuation mark that we can use in a variety of different situations. It is longer than both the en dash (–) and the hyphen (-) and we use em dashes in sentences in unique ways to the other two.
An em dash or long dash (—) is what comes to mind of most people when they hear the word “dash”. If you don’t want to use parentheses or colons, you can substitute them with a long dash. They are also great if you want to emphasize or clarify something.
If you’re wondering how did this punctuation mark get its name, there’s a pretty logical explanation. The thing is, it’s the same width as the letter M, and that is why it’s called an em dash. In contrast, the en dash (–) has the same width as the letter N.
Key Points to Remember When Using an Em Dash
An em dash can be used to replace commas, parentheses, colons, and semicolons, or to show an interruption in a sentence. Remember, that em dashes in place of other punctuation should be used sparingly, but for interruptions it is the primary form of punctuation that is used.
How and When to Use an Em Dash
Using an Em Dash in Place of Other Punctuation
Below we’ll show you just one example of each punctuation mark being replaced with an em dash so you can see how it would work. Remember though, that as with anything in writing you should always use it sparingly. The other punctuation on the list is the more standard way to write the sentences but you can certainly use em dashes’ to replace them at different points in your writing for a change and for added effect.
We can use an em dash to replace a comma in a sentence. In the example below, we’ll use two commas and two em dashes in the changed version to show how this would work:
- The house down the street, the one with the large yellow door, was burgled last night.
- The house down the street—the one with the large yellow door—was burgled last night.
As you can see, an em dash can replace a comma in a sentence and it does the same job.
An em dash with appositives
An appositive is an extra information that is included for clarification. The use of commas is very common to set off appositives but, if an appositive already contains commas, adding even more of them would be very confusing for the reader. A great alternative to commas, in this case, is em dashes.
- All three of us—Melissa, Shelly, and I—went to the same university.
- Talk to the head of the faculty—Mrs. Allen, not me—if you need any help with this assignment.
In a similar way to how we used commas above, we can use parentheses to add additional information to a sentence. Em dashes work in the same way in these cases. Like this:
- The schoolboy finally answered (after taking a few seconds to make up a story) that he hadn’t thrown the paper ball at all.
- The schoolboy finally answered—after taking a few seconds to make up a story—that he hadn’t thrown the paper ball at all.
- I won’t be in work today: I’m sick.
- I won’t be in work today—I’m sick.
You would not, however, be able to use an em dash to replace a colon in a list.
We use semicolons to join two independent clauses together. Again, em dashes’ can replace semicolons’ when you are using them in this way. It might look like this:
- The snow had fallen; the children were building snowmen.
- The snow had fallen—the children were building snowmen.
To Signal an Interruption
We can also use em dashes’ to signal that an interruption has taken place. It might be within the scene, or within a conversation, or even within a character’s own thoughts. Whatever the case, we can use an em dash to signal interruption. Here are some examples from within a scene, a conversation, and thoughts:
1) Ali had just walked into the palace. She was minding her own business when—CRASH—a vase dropped from the table where she was standing and smashed on the floor.
2) “I’m sorry,” Ali said to the King. “I didn’t mean to it was an acc—”
“—silence my child. I know it was not your fault,” the King said with a smile.
3) Ali couldn’t believe her luck. I thought he’d be furious. Everybody always said he was so cruel. Maybe he isn’t so bad after a—She shouldn’t have let her guard down so soon. The king’s smile had faded, and he had anger in his eyes.
As you can see from the examples above, we can use an em dash to show an interruption in a variety of different ways. Notice how when we use it in quotation marks for speech, we use it in the speech that is interrupted, and in the speech that is doing the interrupting and always within the quotation marks.
To Stand in for Missing Portions of a Word
Whether you are intentionally omitting the word to protect somebody’s identity (such as in legal documents, for example) or you are deliberately withholding the word for another reason (such as cursing or something similar) then we use either two or three em dashes to represent that something has been omitted. You should pick one that is best for you and stick to the same style throughout your writing, because this keeps things consistent. Here’s how it might look:
- “The thief told me to —— off,” the juvenile witness, ——, told the court.
How to Use Em Dashes
As you can see from the guide so far, when using an em dash we rarely put a space before or after the punctuation unless we are using multiple em dashes together to represent an omitted word such as in the section above. Some establishments require you to write to a certain style guide which may ask that you do place a space before and after the em dash, so make sure you find out what they accept when writing for a business or something similar.
We also only use multiple em dashes when showing a word has been omitted. Besides that, we should never use over two in a sentence when the em dash is being used to replace commas or parentheses to supply additional information.
When Not to Use an Em Dash
We shouldn’t use em dashes at the start of a list to replace a colon, nor in lists to replace semicolons. We should also be careful not to overuse the em dash in our writing because the other forms of punctuation listed are the standard accepted forms and should be used, mostly. If you need the reader to pay closer attention to a particular point, however, then using an em dash in place of the other punctuation is a good way to grab their attention.
How to Type an Em Dash
‘Ctrl’ + ‘Alt’ + ‘-‘ is the shortcut for the em dash on Windows.
‘Command’ + ‘M’ will create an em dash on Mac.
Failing that, use the Alt or the Option button (depending on whether you have a Mac or Windows PC/Laptop) and type the following code: 0151. This should produce an em dash.
Common Em Dash Mistakes and How to Avoid
Most mistakes to do with em dashes’ are made when an individual confuses them with other punctuation. So below we’ll look at the key differences to help you avoid making similar mistakes.
Em dash vs. En Dash
One of the most common mix-ups between different punctuation has to be confusing the em dash and en dash. Not only does an em dash (—) look very similar to an en dash (–), but they also sound similar when we discuss them too, so mixing them up can be quite common. The important thing to remember is that we use an en dash between two words or numbers to represent the span of something. Or we can use an en dash for compound phrases or to show scores. The point is, en dashes behave differently to em dashes. Just remember that em dashes are for interruptions or replacing other punctuation, and en dashes are not.
Em dash vs. Hyphen
Again, the em dash (—) can sometimes be confused with the hyphen (-). We use hyphens most often for compounding words such as ‘dog-friendly’. A hyphens job in a sentence is to join two words together or a prefix to a word such as ‘co-ordinated’. Em dashes are used in place of punctuation and are never seen within words, but a hyphen always is.
Em dash vs. Colon
This has to be the most common mistake of all of them. Because so often people say that you can replace colons with em dashes, writers assume that this is the case in every situation. Unfortunately, it is not. A colon’s primary purpose is to join an independent and dependent clause together to show emphasis on the second part of the sentence. Here, we can use an em dash. But, we can’t use em dashes in place of colons when the colon is being used at the start of the list. Have a closer look:
- Fetch me these things from the store: a carrot, a bag of potatoes, some broccoli, and a cauliflower. (correct)
- Fetch me these things from the store — a carrot, a bag of potatoes, some broccoli, and a cauliflower. (incorrect)
Here a colon is the correct punctuation. Trying to use an em dash instead would not work.
- I fear one thing above all else: loneliness. (correct)
- I fear one thing above all else — loneliness. (incorrect)
Here a colon is also correct because it is joining an independent and dependent clause but an em dash would also be appropriate instead.
Remember, em dashes cannot replace colons in every situation.
Should You Capitalize the First Letter After an Em Dash?
No matter how you use an em dash, whether it’s replacing other forms of punctuation, representing interruption in the text, or as part of a missing word, you do not capitalize the first letter following it. The only exception to this is if the following word is a proper noun, in which case you should capitalize them as normal.
Em Dash vs. En Dash vs. Hyphen
These three punctuation marks all look very similar, and yet they cannot be used interchangeably. They only differ in length on writing and it is important to go for a correct one, depending on what exactly you want to say in your sentence. But how are the hyphen and the en dash different from the em dash?
The hyphen (-) is shorter than both the em dash and the en dash. Its two main uses are for compound words and for numbers that aren’t inclusive. For instance, words, such as self-esteem, or client-centered, all need a hyphen. Similarly, social security numbers are separated by hyphens as well.
The En Dash
The en dash (–) is slightly longer than the hyphen but still shorter than an em dash, and it also has its own functions. Firstly, you need to use an en dash if you want to indicate a range of numbers or a span of time or distance. In these cases, it has the meaning of “through” or “to”.
For example, a teacher might assign her students to read pages 50–84 from the textbook as a part of their homework. Or, if you own a business, you could say that the 2017–2018 fiscal year was your most profitable year so far. Finally, you could say that the China–France flight is a very long one. All of these sentences require an en dash.
Secondly, you need to use an en dash if you want to show a connection between two terms. They are used for phrases that already have a hyphen, and in those instances where your modifier consists of two or more words.
Examples of Using Em Dashes in Sentences
Since we’ve already covered how to use em dashes in sentences, we’re going to take this time to provide you with some more examples of how it might look so you can get an idea of different ways of using them. For the ‘in place of other punctuation’ sections, we won’t include the other form of punctuation because it’ll take up too much of your time. But certainly, think about how the sentence might be written with commas/parentheses/colon/semicolons instead, so you can see how that might work.
In Place of Other Punctuation
- The little girl—the one with the red hair and pigtails—approached the teacher the moment they walked into the classroom.
- Sandra felt scared—then again, she always did nowadays—the moment the door swung open.
- You are the person—the only person—that I could ever love.
- The teacher—the substitute—seemed to know everybody’s names already.
- The police officer—the one with the curly hair—looked especially angry.
- I love cake—lemon cake has always been my favorite—but even I couldn’t have eaten all the flavors the bakery had on offer.
- I had never known someone could be so nice—before you.
- The snow had fallen—white and crisp.
- A long day at work had left me feeling one thing—exhausted.
- The children were all playing—they filled the schoolyard with laughter.
- The animals were already awake—Sally could hear the orchestra of farm animals as she made her way outside.
- Sunshine was already lighting her way through the trees—the days were getting longer and warmer.
To Show Interruption
- “I can’t believe you would do that to me!” she screamed. “After everything I—”
- “—I didn’t mean to OK. I’m sorry!”
- Walking through the forest, Tom was wondering if he had lost his way. I remember that tree. The old oak with the twisted branches. Have I—he really had been going around in circles.
- Climbing trees had always been fun for Billy. He’d never had a problem with it yet. One foot at a time, that’s what he always—CRUNCH! A thin branch snapped, and it sent Billy plummeting to the ground.
To Replace Parts of Words
- Telling somebody to “—— off” is never OK.
- The witness, ——, sat in tears as he told his story.
- Mr. J——, was devastated to hear the news.
Em Dash (—) Infographic
Em Dash Quiz
Now that you know everything you need to know about the em dash, we’ve put together this little quiz. See if you think the following sentences are correct or incorrect. If you think it’s incorrect, then how should the sentence look?
1) Fetch four things with you—a toothbrush, a change of clothes, a sleeping bag, and a snack.
2) “Miss Jones, can I go to the bathroom again I—”
“—Jonathan, it is your 5th time in an hour, please sit down and do your work!”
3) The rain had been falling hard all afternoon—the children would need to wear boots on their walk home from school.
4) The emotion washed over me like a tidal wave and I felt only one thing—sheer panic.
5) Living down the road–just one or two doors down – was an old man who shouted whenever anyone stepped on his property.
1) Incorrect! We can’t use em dashes in place of commas at the start of a list! So the sentence should actually look like this:
- Fetch four things with you: a toothbrush, a change of clothes, a sleeping bag, and a snack.
2) Correct! The em dashes’ are being used to show interruption, and we have used it in the quotation marks for both the interrupter and the person who is being interrupted, so it is used correctly.
3) Correct! It is being used to connect two independent clauses, just like a semicolon would.
4) Correct! Using an em dash to link an independent and dependent clause together in this way is correct. It’s taking the place of a colon.
We made a few mistakes here. Can you spot them all? First, we used an en dash (–) not an em dash (—) for the first part, then we used a hyphen (-) for the second one. BUT, we also didn’t use a space between the dash in the first part, and then we did in the second part. Whilst we rarely use spaces between em dashes’ at all, some places that you write might require it depending on the style guide they use.
The point here is to be consistent in whether you put a space before and after, and to be mindful of the size of the dash so you know you’re using the right one. Here’s how it should have looked:
- Living down the road—just one or two doors down—was an old man who shouted whenever anyone stepped on his property.