Em Dash (—) When to Use an Em Dash (Long Dash)

What is em dash (—)?  Learn how and when to use em dash (long dash) with example sentences and ESL images. The dash is one of the most important punctuation marks in the English language.

Em Dash

What Is an Em Dash?

An em dash (—) is what comes to mind of most people when they hear the word “dash”. It’s longer than an en dash or a hyphen and it has a variety of uses in a sentence. 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. The important thing is to not overuse them: you shouldn’t put more than two em dashes in the same sentence.

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.

When To Use an Em Dash?

An em dash is a very versatile punctuation mark and, when used correctly, it can make the sentence clearer and easier to understand. Here are its most popular uses:

An em dash instead of parentheses

If you want to put emphasis on parenthetical information, one of the things you can do is use M dashes instead. Keep in mind that the use of em dashes goes better in informal speech, so, if your writing is formal, it might be best to stick with parentheses.

When you have parentheses in the middle of the sentence, you need to use two em dashes, omitting the surrounding punctuation. For example, the following sentences have identical meanings and are both correct:

  • When the teacher found all the grammar mistakes (more than ten on a single page) in Jimmy’s homework, he had to give him an F.
  • When the teacher found all the grammar mistakes—more than ten on a single page—in Jimmy’s homework, he had to give him an F.

However, if you have parentheses at the end of the sentence, only one em dash is needed.

  • I met him when I was shopping (or, rather, aimlessly wandering around the store).
  • I met him when I was shopping—or, rather, aimlessly wandering around the store.

An em dash instead of a colon

To put emphasis on the conclusion of the sentence, using a long dash is a good idea. Still, remember that a colon would be more formal than an em dash, so be sure to check if em dashes match your style of writing.

An example of a long dash in place of a colon would be the following:

  • Rhodes had everything: warm water, sandy beaches, and delicious food.
  • Rhodes had everything—warm water, sandy beaches, and delicious food.

An em dash instead of a word or a part of the word

Sometimes, you might want to omit a part of the word or even a whole word in writing, be it on purpose or because the word is unknown. In this case, you can use multiple em dashes: two, if a part of the word is missing, and three, if the whole word is missing.

For example:

  • Mr. M—— was infamous for going around the town drunk and yelling, “F—— you all”.
  • The note was damaged by water so badly that all we could read was, “Pl—— send ———as soon as y—— c——”,

An em dash with appositives

An appositive is 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, are em dashes.

For example:

  • 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.

An em dash with change of thought

In informal and especially in creative writing, you might want to show that you or one of your characters changes his mind about something or is interrupted in the middle of the sentence. Here, em dashes fit perfectly. This technique isn’t suitable for formal writing either because, in an essay, it will make you look unsure.

In a narrative, however, you can always say something like:

  • Would you bring me the—oh, never mind.
  • James, could you—stop yelling, Ted, I’ll be there in a second!—James, could you help me with dinner?

Em Dash Image

Em Dash

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

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 this use of an en dash would be:

  • I still have my grandma’s World War II–era dress.
  • Which side of the pro-life–pro-choice argument are you on?

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