Hyphens and Dashes: Em Dash
Welcome to the final post in this three-post series. We’ve talked about using hyphens as well as the fickle use of en dashes. Now, we’ll talk about the longest of the three and possibly the most complex. Remember that when using a hyphen, there are no spaces before or after the word. Some publishers and styles prefer spaces, but for the article’s sake and for sake of the quiz at the end of this, don’t use spaces.
Em Dash (—) Windows code: alt+0151 or for Mac: command+option+- (plus -)
The well-known em dash is used in place of many things, including a comma, semicolon and sometimes parentheses or colons. If you don’t know what all those stand for…
Comma (,): used to separate lists, clauses, or list a pause in a sentence.
Semicolon (;): used to indicate a pause, closer to a period than a comma, between two main clauses that might represent the same idea.
Colon (:): used to indicate a list or expansion of a previous word or phrase.
Parentheses ( ): used to indicate an internal thought or explanation/expansion that does not fit in context, but is necessary in the context in which it is read.
Those are my definitions mixed with other explanations, but hopefully you knew what they were already. If not, let me know and I’ll start up a punctuation series. (Whoo!)
Don’t think that because em dashes are ambiguous forms of punctuation, you can replace everything you thought you knew with this universal line. If you use an em dash too often, you can and will chop up your sentences. If you read an em dash in a sentence, you’ll notice that it breaks apart the sentence in a way that is more powerful than a comma, less subtle than parentheses, less constructive than a colon, yet more “flow-ey” than a semicolon. Don’t let it replace your punctuation marks. They exist for a purpose. If you can’t find a place to use an em dash, don’t use it. Simple. It fits into certain styles of writing, and it’s not a bad thing if yours isn’t one of them.
Em dashes aren’t typically used for lists or even pauses, but they are easily read as a comma/parentheses combination when used in a sentence. This means that although a phrase can be read with commas, it doesn’t have to. It’s a clean way to separate numerous amounts of commas in a sentence, offering the reader a fresh view. I combined commas and parentheses because the em dash provides a great combination of the two, resulting in a thought that is necessary in a sentence, but at the same time, it’s a kind of filler that the writer can’t otherwise include.
Ex: He followed me to Bralen’s, the coffee shop around the corner—which I usually avoided unless I had a follower—and I easily slipped through the door before he caught up to me and asked me something I didn’t want to answer.
If I had tried writing it with commas, the sentence would be filled with them and it would also be a little harder to understand. This isn’t a requirement, keep in mind; however, it’s a nicer way to read. This also wouldn’t work on its own. If I tried stating this before or after the sentence (…which I usually avoided unless I had a follower), it would be out of place.
NOTE: Parentheses are a side thought. Notice that the em dash brings it into the sentence, making it part of the sentence and scene. Keep that in mind when deciding what to use.
Not that kind of colon. As we’ve stated before, em dashes are more direct. They insert something into a sentence like the third grader taking their place in the lunch line. The only difference is that we like the em dash. The third grader deserves to drop his yogurt.
Ex: I couldn’t believe my life would change after just three things—love, marriage, then a fight.
Friendship, loyalty, love—I didn’t know everyone had it but me.
As you can see, the sentences are stronger and more urgent. It gets to the point and it does it fast. Don’t mind the choice of sentence, but look at how different it could have been, but how it is instead with the em dash. Oh, the possibilities!
Don’t be afraid of em dashes. They’re used for many things, including trailing off or sudden dialogue breaks. If your character interrupts, you don’t want to use an ellipsis. That’s a trailing punctuation.
“I swear I didn’t st—”
“I don’t care what you ‘didn’t’ do.”
It’s an interruption. And it works beautifully.