How to Use an Em Dash to Step Up Your Writing Game

Ah, the ever-elusive em dash. It's a punctuation mark that is so effective—yet one that so many people are afraid to use (or have never even heard of). After turning in my copy to clients, I often get asked "What's that long dash you're using? I love it!" And, to be honest, I went back and forth on whether I should dive deep into the topic of em dashes on my blog, because I feel like I'm letting you in on my best-kept writer's secret. But, because I'm feeling so generous today (like, really generous), I've decided to do it. Read on for all you need to know about this powerful punctuation mark....before I change my mind.

Ok, so what is an em dash?

I thought you'd never ask! An em dash is a long dash (like this one: —) that can be used in place of parentheses, commas, semicolons or colons.

When should I use an em dash?

Just like a comma, an em dash works to set certain words in a sentence apart from others, indicating a powerful pause. You can use an em dash in any number of ways, including: 

  • In pairs to visually enclose a word, phrase, clause or aside—ahem, like this one—just like you'd use parentheses for a parenthetical aside.

  • To detach one end of a sentence from the main body of the sentence—like I'm doing here.

  • In place of a comma, colon or semicolon to connect two sentences or ideas

  • To create a strong break in the structure of a sentence or emphasize a particular clause

Are there certain rules for using an em-dash?

There should be no space on either side of an em dash. Your words should back right up against your em dash—like this. You should also stick to no more than two em dashes per sentence.

PRO TIP: Em dashes make far more impact when used sparingly. Use them when you really want the reader to pause on a certain thought, or when you really need to set apart a certain clause for maximum effect.

How do I generate an em-dash?

To generate an em dash in Word, simply hit the minus key twice, and then hit the spacebar, and—voila!—the two dashes will turn into one long em-dash. I feel like this is leading me into a “When two dashes love each other...” bit. 

PRO TIP: Not all programs automatically give you an em dash when you type two minuses (or hyphens). iMessages and Microsoft Word both do—Google docs, though, doesn't (at least as of yet—maybe they'll change their minds once they read this blog post. Who knows?). If I'm working on a platform that doesn't auto-generate an em dash, I simply use the two hyphens throughout the doc (like this -- ) wherever I want an em dash. Then, once I'm done writing, I go back through and do a "find and replace." You can also use the following keyboard short cuts: 

  • To generate an em dash on a Mac: press: option, shift and the minus key

  • To generate an em dash on a PC: hold down alt+0151 (only the numbers on the numeric keypad work for this—not the numbers above the letters on your keyboard)

Why is the em dash so great?

The most versatile punctuation mark there is and my go-to solution for lightening up sentences that are overladen with commas, I am a thorough believer that the em dash is one of the best things to happen to the English language. If I liked sliced bread, I might even go so far as to say the em dash is the best thing since sliced bread—but, as a writer, I naturally hate clichés, and, as an Italian, I prefer my bread come in massive, unsliced, fresh-baked loaves...so we'll scrap that one for now.

 

The em dash can take your writing from everyday “ehh” to super sophisticated. It indicates you’re a strong writer who has a firm grasp on punctuation—and who knows how to use it to her advantage.

Keep in mind, though, just because the em dash is a sophisticated punctuation mark doesn't mean it's too "highbrow" or inaccessible for the everyday reader.  

Great punctuation is like gravity: your reader doesn’t have to understand why it works well for it to work well.

While your reader may not know the exact name of the punctuation mark they're looking at, it will still work to visually break up your content and emphasize the area you want it to—regardless of the reader's knowledge of (or lack of knowledge of) the punctuation mark itself. 

The em dash is particularly great for business owners developing website copy who want to give a little extra "punch" to their content or emphasize playful portions of a sentence. Rather than saying "Our secret family recipe makes for the best barbecue in town, and we aren't about to spill the beans," you can change that comma to an em dash, making the second part of the sentence so much more punchy: "Our secret family recipe makes for the best barbecue in town—and we aren't about to spill the beans."

It's a small punctuation swap that makes a big difference on screen, which, when it comes down to it, is really what the em dash is all about: a small mark with a mighty impact.


Mastering the art of the em dash sound intimidating? Not to fear—I've had tons of practice over the years and am more than happy to hone those skills for your next content project. Reach out today to ask about the customized services I offer for crafting effective and engaging copy.