Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Punctuation Point: Defending the Em Dash

In a recent Slate article about the em dash, Noreen Malone demonstrates what overuse of the punctuation looks like. Her article is so overloaded with em dashes that the reader is left dizzy and confused. A paragraph would have done the trick in my mind, but the article certainly makes its point.

Apart from that, however, there is little value in Malone's piece. She doesn't show her readers how to use the em dash and seeks to abolish it altogether. The em dash, she says, does not allow for clear, concise writing. I disagree, and so do many others. Writes Bryan Garner in Garner's Modern American Usage:

The em-dash is perhaps the most underused punctuation mark in American writing. Whatever the type of writing, dashes can often clarify a sentence that is clogged up with commas—or even one that's otherwise lusterless.

Better than that, Garner offers several examples of dashes used well. Here's one:

She tried not to think that all his verses about her—the sonnets, the villanelles, the haiku—were merely ploys to prepare her for this ridiculous rubber balloon.
—Arthur Miller, "The Bare Manuscript," New Yorker, 16 Dec. 2002, at 82, 86.

Malone writes that the em dash "disrupts the flow of the sentence." Sure, Miller could have used commas or parentheses, but the point of using the dashes was to disrupt the flow of the sentence. Commas are not as strong as dashes; they keep the sentence flowing. Parentheses, the stage whisper of punctuation, are even weaker. If Miller had used commas, we wouldn't have the impression that although Lena was trying not to think about all the verses, the abrupt break and the list shows us that she was thinking about them anyway. You can almost see her pausing, remembering them all.

I won't argue that writers sometimes overuse the em dash. But despite the rational advice from those she quotes, Malone encourages us to stop using the em dash completely. Perhaps that would be good for her, as she admits she doesn't know how to use the em dash properly:

I never met a sentence I didn't want to make just a bit longer—and so the dash is my embarrassing best friend. ... But as I've read and written more in the ensuing years, my reliance on the dash has come to feel like a pack-a-day cigarette habit—I know it makes me look and sound and feel terrible—and so I'm trying to quit.

For the rest of us, however, a review of how and when to use the em dash would be more useful.

What Is an Em Dash?

An em dash is the longest dash, often called simply the dash, but also called the em rule or the long dash. It looks like this: —.

What Does an Em Dash Do?

An em dash sets off one part of a sentence from the rest of the sentence.

What Do You Use an Em Dash For?

The em dash signals an interruption in the sentence. The interruption might be to emphasize a point or to give an example. Em dashes are more emphatic than commas, parentheses, colons, and ellipses and can easily replace them—when it's warranted.

How Often Should I Use an Em Dash?

This to me is Malone's, and many other writers', real problem. It's not that they don't understand what an em dash is for, but they can't get a handle on how often to use it. If you're using the em dash to make a sentence just a little longer, if you're using it to try to stuff one more point in the sentence, stop. The dash is for effect, not overstuffing.

The em dash should be used sparingly. I still like Grammar Girl's advice:

A dash also introduces extra material, but, well, a dash is quite a dramatic punctuation mark. A dashing young man is certainly not an ordinary young man, and if you're dashing off to the store, you're not just going to the store, you're going in a flurry.

Can I Use a Hyphen? Do I Put Spaces Around It?

First, never substitute a single hyphen for an em dash; they're two different pieces of punctuation. Use a genuine em dash. Most systems can produce em dashes, but because the dash doesn't have its own key on the keyboard, you may have to do a little digging to figure out how to make one. (However, if you're entering copy into a system that does not have an em dash, say, a typewriter, you may use two hyphens. I am not talking about MS Word here.)

Whether you put spaces around the dash depends on the style manual you follow. AP wants them, Chicago doesn't. It's arbitrary (hence the moniker style), so look it up.

Yes, the em dash can be overused. The problem ultimately lies with writers—and apparently their copyeditors—who don't know how to use it properly. Don't just throw out what you don't understand. Expand your skills and learn how to use the em dash properly.

To quote APvsChicago, "Give the em dash a raise, the corner office, and its own key (on the keyboard)."

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 21st 2011, 7:35 AM
Comment by: Christine B.
Where is the em dash on the qwerty keyboard? Since I've been typing, I have never used more than a dash.
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 8:47 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
I'm a big fan of the em dash and love it that you wrote a whole article about how to use this mark and why we'd want to use it! Thanks!! It's too early in the morning for me to think of a post where I cleverly use the em dash, but do know I'm thinking about it :)
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 10:10 AM
Comment by: Ellen C.
In the second sentence I imagine you meant overloaded.

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 10:18 AM
Comment by: Chris B.
I love em dashes. Remember that old rule--the one that says when you dress up, you should take a last look in the mirror before you leave the house, and remove one piece of jewelry to avoid being overdressed? Take a look at your copy before you post. Replace some of your em dashes with less ostentatious bits of punctuation. Your writing will appear refined instead of flamboyant.
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 12:20 PM
Comment by: James M.
To say parentheses are "weaker" than commas is debatable; this idea needs exploration with somewhat more subtle care. And should I have used an em dash in the previous sentence instead of the semicolon? You barely touch on the stylistic effects of dashes, semicolons, colons, etc. And why is an em dash called an em dash? Is this obvious to all readers? In short, an interesting little article (with which I tend to agree), but sketchy, superficial, and not in the end very helpful.
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 12:48 PM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I disagree with James.... I thought the article was just fine. I love the em dash, which all of my editors have learned about me.

BTW, on a Macintosh, you can create em-dashes at the drop of a hat — simply chord the shift+alt keysand press hyphen. If you only hold the alt key down, pressing the hyphen key creates an en dash, which is the typographical choice for such things as ranges — e.g., 2–4. (A standard that I never follow.)

On my Mac-based Word, typing two hyphens generates an em dash. This is a function that is turned on in Tools>AutoCorrect>AutoCorrectAsYouType>a checkbox called (strangely) "symbol characters (--) with symbols (—)" I imagine this works on Windows machines, as well.
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 12:56 PM
Comment by: John S.
How about a semicolon once in a while; like this one:

I know it makes me look and sound and feel terrible; and so I'm trying to quit.
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 12:57 PM
Comment by: Chris B.
An em dash, named in ancient times when type was set by hand, is the same width as the letter m. An en dash is the width of the letter n.
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 1:52 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
I liked this article (although I certainly could have used more discussion about the em dash's place in the punctuation "team"). I like the em dash myself, and feel that, when it's warranted, no other symbol will do.

(Is there something wrong with the final sentence of the paragraph headed" What Do You Use an Em Dash For?"? I couldn't seem to read it sensibly.)
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 8:24 PM
Comment by: Mark B.
"That" should be "than" in the final sentence of the paragraph Sue B. questions.

[Thank you! —Ed.]
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 11:28 PM
Comment by: Carl S. (Oceanside, CA)
In MS-WORD this can be found under Symbols.
Wednesday June 22nd 2011, 8:44 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, everyone, for the comments, and to the editor for fixing my typos. No matter how hard I try, there are still errors in my pieces once they go live. I need my own editor!

Thanks, too, for the comments on what more you'd like to know about the dash. This article was meant to be a primer, but that doesn't mean we can't explore the dash in more detail. What else would you like to know?
Wednesday June 22nd 2011, 11:41 AM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
If authors use the em dash properly, and with restraint, my only complaint is a lack of spaces before and after the dash. I can see how typesetters would prefer this, since it means less work, but for me, the lack of spaces ties the two surrounding words together visually, something that is not intended, and makes for initial confusion with a hyphen.
Wednesday June 22nd 2011, 3:51 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Spaces before or after a dash come down to a style rule. The Chicago Manual of Style says no spaces, and since I follow that style most often in my work, that's what I end up doing in my own writing. AP wants spaces around the dash for the very reason you mention, Don: without them, line wraps can be a nightmare. It makes life easier for newsrooms if dashes have spaces before and after them.
Thursday June 23rd 2011, 1:23 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
What is the crime of just using a hyphen followed by a space as a substitue em dash? It communicates the usage without any of the "space around" rigamarole or the awkward keyboarding. And to hell with AP and Chicago and all the other petty tyrannies- unless you are writing serious non-fiction.
Saturday June 25th 2011, 7:26 PM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
@Craig — using a simple hyphen in the place of an em-dash looks amateurish. In emails and casual correspondence it wouldn't make a difference, but in any kind of formal writing they just make some people (like me) cringe.
Saturday June 25th 2011, 11:14 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, Erin, for another bit of punctuation larnin'. I'm all for any bit of punctuation that can vary a sentence, or add something of interest to it.

A hyphen has a function within a word, right? As such, it wouldn't substitute for a dash, which is a startling sort of thing.
Monday June 27th 2011, 8:53 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi, Jane B. Yes, the hyphen has its own purpose. Generally speaking, it joins two words together to form one unit. Note the difference in meaning between "forty odd copyeditors" and "forty-odd copyeditors." The first is a group of forty copyeditors who are a little odd, while the second is a group of more than forty but less than fifty copyeditors. The first part of this post tells you a little more about hyphens: http://thewritingresource.net/2009/12/11/dash-it-all/.
Monday June 27th 2011, 12:09 PM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
That was a great example, Erin! Thanks!
Sunday July 31st 2011, 1:24 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Yes, a very handy column.
Ms. Erin always breaks down the rules in most practical way.
Because of this column, I think I'll be able to use em dash (-) correctly in my writing so forth.
I've MS word, so no direct key to press to use the desired punctuation mark in writing.
After a quick search, I now know how and when to use this handy notation.
Many Thanks.
Wednesday February 15th 2017, 3:19 PM
Comment by: Juwan Parker
Ah yes, the dash. I love to use these in essays, but too many is too many. I don't over use them or anything...

-Keep posting, nice article.
Monday February 20th 2017, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Juwan!

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

The Editorial Emergency crew has their own take on the em dash.
Erin Brenner offers tips on how to join two independent clauses.
Erin says that you, too, can become an apostrophe superhero.