What is an “em-dash”?
When you first look up “what is an em-dash?” the very first definition you receive is “a long dash used in punctuation.” Okay…. well, that isn’t very helpful, now is it?
Some of you may already be ready to make an “em-dash” for the metaphorical door, when we try to introduce new and exciting punctuation into your writing!
But really, an em-dash may sound a little strange—and that may make you feel a bit wary. However, this form of punctuation is actually a lot more common than you think. In fact, you probably see it a lot—in newspapers, online, on billboards, maybe even in text messages if you talk to a lot of English majors—every day as you read. Would you believe that I’ve already used an em-dash three times in this paragraph?
An em-dash gets its name very simply. It is a relative to the en-dash (–), and the hyphen (-), a descendent of the dash family. It is named for its size, as it is measurably the same width as the capital letter M—just as the en-dash (–) is the same width as the letter N.
How do you use it?
Our friend the em-dash, who looks a little something like this “—” and can usually be found in the middle of a sentence—in case you haven’t been paying much attention…
This friend can be used in quite a few different ways! Three of the most common ways that the em-dash can be used are:
- Replace parentheses and commas.
The em-dash is oftentimes used as a replacement for parentheses or commas, in order to supply extra thought, information, or explanation.
“Maria was born in 1926—the glamor of the roaring twenties was well underway by that time—to a family of wealthy landowners.”
- Interrupt a sentence, thought, or dialogue.
The em-dash can be used to interrupt a sentence or dialogue.
“I didn’t mean—” Diane began.
“Don’t even start, Diane, I’ve heard enough,” Jason said.
- Create a casual or conversational tone.
The em-dash can be used to make your writing more conversational and casual, as well as bring some essense of personal style to your work.
“I’d never been much of a believer in the supernatural—aside from my strong belief in ghosts, fairies, mermaids, werewolves, and dormice that steal your shoes.”
“I couldn’t take my eyes off of the singer—could you blame me? Their talent was inhuman.”
But… how do you use it?
On a Mac you can create an em-dash with “option + shift + -”
On a PC, you can do so with “Alt + Ctrl + -”
Or should I say… happy em-dash-ing!