How to Use the Em Dash Correctly

Add spice to your writing with dashes. I love them, and therefore I’m probably guilty of using the em dash far more than I should. Let’s discuss what it is, and what it’s used for.

The em dash is labeled so because it’s approximately the width of the letter “m” (—). It can also be expressed by using two dashes (–). We see the double dash used online quite often, because the true em dash usually requires a little html adjustment since it’s not on all keyboards. Don’t mistake it with the hyphen (-), which is much smaller.

There are a few other dashes we could touch on as well such as his little buddy, the “en” (–) , but since the em dash has several uses of its own, let’s discuss this one in detail.

One way the em dash is used, is to set off an additional, but not necessary, detail in a sentence. It’s what dip is to the chip. You really want it there to enhance the flavor, but you could live without it. I find that it’s also a great way to add personality to your sentences. Think of it as you would a dash of spice. Here’s an example:

Madge was in the kitchen kicking up dough, while Willbilly—yes, that’s truly his name—settled in for a night on the couch.

Notice that there aren’t any spaces before or after the dash.

The em dash is the best way to express an interruption of speech:

“Don’t slam the—”

Bam! The kids were off and running for their first morning of school, while three lunches watched them run off.

The em dash is a great way to define something, midway through sentence:

“Honey, do you want meat loaf for dinner?” I asked, handing him $5.00 for lunch.

“Tote ma goat!” He said, and then mumbled the usual “TTYL”—talk to you later—before before leaving the house.

Use it to cite examples, in place of “such as”:

Squirrels in the writing community generally misuse many punctuation marks in the English language—the dash, tilde, and semi colon—leading me to assume this is why they’re not published.

Lastly, I like to use it in place of “that is,” to add emphasis. You’ll see it a lot in my writing, but only when I want to bring home a point. Here’s a sentence, where I use the dash to first add a side note (the dip on the chip) and secondly to bring the point home.

Matthew 14:22-33 illustrates this power in what I like to refer to as “eye contact.” This is the story of Peter, a man—one of the twelve disciples—who stepped onto the water with the best intentions. Peter, despite the storm that surrounded him, was willing to take a walk of faith.

An interesting thing about this story is that Peter initiated this walk of faith—not the other way around.

If you notice the dashes in the first paragraph, you’ll see that the phrase, “one of the twelve desciples,” is not a necessary detail to the reader. It’s simply good background information. However, in the second sentence, “despite the storm that surrounded him,” was very necessary to the point, and therefore commas were required.

Since my brain’s run dry, we’ll discuss the other dashes another day, while this one stews in our pen.