em dashes

“The dash is a handy device, informal and essentially playful, telling you that you’re about to take off on a different track but still in some way connected with the present course—only you have to remember that the dash is there, and either put a second dash at the end of the notion to let the reader know that he’s back on course, or else end the sentence, as here, with a period.”

~Lewis Thomas

These are possibly the coolest piece of punctuation there is—nice and lengthy, pulling the reader’s eye like an arrow saying, “Check this out!” The emphasis is fabulous. If you want, you can even add a space on each side to really make them stand out.

Professional Examples

between independent clauses

  • Talk about whatever makes you feel awesome — do your thing.

~from Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly

  • We find ourselves in this universe and not another for much the same reason we find ourselves on earth and not on Neptune—we find ourselves where conditions are ripe for our form of life.

~from Brian Greene’s “Welcome to the Multiverse”

  • Avoid clichés like the plague—it’s a no-brainer.

~from Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style

  • With his glasses on, Frederick’s expression seems to ease; his face makes more sense—this, Werner thinks, is who he is.

~from Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

  • The child in question was still present, a husk in the bed—Kirsten pulled a quilt over its head while August was still going through the downstairs bathroom—and there was a framed photograph on the wall of a boy with his parents, all of them beaming and resplendent with life, the boy in a Little League uniform with his parents kneeling on either side.

~from Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

around removable information

  • Writing is at its best—always, always, always—when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer.

~from Stephen King’s On Writing

  • Today Chicken McNuggets are wildly popular among young children — and contain twice as much fat per ounce as a hamburger.

~from Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation

  • Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.

~from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

  • I actually have one writer friend — whom I think I will probably be getting rid of soon — who said to me recently that if you don’t remember it when you get home, it probably wasn’t that important.

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • We love to hear that goodness will triumph over evil, that the fragile prize — humanity, life — will be saved.

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • The Symphony performed music—classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs—and Shakespeare.

~from Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

  • So I asked the logical question: “Should I let a major factual error go by so as to save discomfort?” The student — a good student, smart and earnest — said that was a tough question. He’d need to think about it.

~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

  • Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich—they do not exist without this place.

~from Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

  • Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow — that’s vulnerability.

~from Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly

How Em Dashes Work

Em dashes get their name from being the length of the letter m. They are used to create emphasis and extra separation.

The ones that link clauses are the simplest: take two (or more) independent clauses and place an em dash between them. This emphasizes the connection between them.

Independent clause — independent clause.

When you want to emphasize a removable piece of information with em dashes, just pay attention to where it comes in relation to the independent clause. When it’s mid-clause, you’ll need two em dashes so that the second one brings the reader back to finish the independent clause.

Independent clause — emphasized removable information.

Independent — emphasized removable interruption — clause.

Emphasized removable information — independent clause.

Some publishers will add a space on both sides of the em dash; most will keep it flush against the words on both sides. (I’ve shown some sentences with spaces and some without on this page just for demonstration. You should keep yours consistent.)

The hard part is formatting an em dash, since they aren’t on the keyboard. Here are some of the options:

  1. You can find it on a touchscreen keyboard. Hold down the hyphen, and additional dash options will open above it.
  2. You can type two or three hyphens in a row. Sometimes your software will convert them to an em dash (WordPress converts three hyphens in a row; Microsoft Word converts two hyphens in a row only if they’re flush against the words before and after), but if not, two or three hyphens are fine to stand in for an em dash.
  3. You can try a shortcut code, such as Alt+0151 on a PC or Option+hyphen on a Mac. The trick is that the PC code has to be typed on a numeric keypad, not the numbers above the letter keys. This code does not work in Microsoft Word but does work on most internet applications, including email, Twitter, blog comments, etc.
  4. You can insert an em dash from a list of symbols or find one to copy and paste if necessary.

Self Check

When you write a sentence with one em dash, check that at least one side is an independent clause. If neither side can stand alone, the sentence isn’t working.

When you write a sentence with two em dashes, cover up the words between the dashes and see if the sentence makes sense without them. If not, the sentence isn’t working.

Also check to make sure that you have a full em dash (—), not a dinky hyphen (-), and that your em dashes are either flush against the words on each side or have a space on both sides.

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3 Comments

  1. You mentioned using the em dash in an independent clause. How would you punctuate a sentence where it falls at the end of a dependent clause? ie, “When the situation arises–and it will–you must be ready.” Normally you would have a comma after the dependent clause… But you can’t use a comma after an em dash can you?
    Thanks so much

    Reply

    1. Sorry that I missed this comment! No, we no longer put commas next to em dashes, though you might find that occasionally in some very old publications such as Jane Austen novels. The em dash completely overtakes where the comma would be and makes the comma unnecessary. Your sentence is great as you wrote it:

      When the situation arises—and it will—you must be ready.

      Reply

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