Word Play: the case for the em dash—seriously

Word Play is a series for the grammar police, former English majors, word nerds, pedants, and people who are curious about the evolution of language, grammar, standardization, style, and prose. Be warned: this series will get very political. Red ink may bleed.

It’s really trendy to hate on the em dash, recently. Honestly, it is probably for good reason. It’s mostly because writers have banded together to ask writers to restrain their long-sentence impulses and just use other punctuation.

An em dash—for those who forget—is the longest looking hyphen or minus sign we can make (though it is neither of these as it serves a different function and is a different length). It is called this because of the space an “em” takes up in monospace type. The order of hierarchy goes: figure dash, en dash, em dash, horizontal bar, and a swung dash.

Em dashes are probably the most familiar of the hierarchy of dashes, and they even need a special combination of key punches in order to make. For Macs, hold down the Shift and Option keys and press the Minus key. For those who don’t use Macs (…how dare you?), an em dash can be created on the PC by holding down the ALT key and typing 0151 on the numeric keypad—but not the ones above the letters. (I’m not sure if they are being completely serious, but several sites confirm this is the method).

Even then, em dashes are stylized differently. In most cases, an em dash does not have a space between use—like this—but the Associated Press Style guide used by newspapers recommends putting a space before and after the em dash — like this — for clarity’s sake.

Now that you know the very strange ways to create them, you should probably know what they are used for if you want to use them at all. Em dashes are versatile and can take the place of commas, parentheses, and colons. They are generally used to slow down reading—more so than a comma or semicolon could—but not end the sentence. They are used to disrupt sentence flow, which is a cardinal sin amongst writers (unless you are Emily Dickinson).

In recent years, writers have called to end em dashes—or at least spare usage—because overuse is killer on the eyes and the brain. Sure, an em dash is an easy way to prolong a sentence and is better on the eyes than parentheses, but its effectiveness in writing is still warranted.

Em dashes do no harm as long as they are used correctly and not often. Here’s when you can and cannot use one.

When you should note use an em dash

  • In a list. That is just a dash that is a stand in for a bullet point.
  • As a semicolon. Semicolons connect other things.
  • As a hyphen or en dash.

When you can use an em dash

  • Attributing/sourcing a quote. This is especially useful for those of you who love to quote Ghandi, dead musicians, and comedy bits on your social media feeds. For example:

“Life’s a dirty game. You got to play dirty to win it.” — Aziz Ansari’s cousin Harris

  • When you don’t feel like using a colon—this is when to use an em dash.
  • When your name is Em.

Author’s note: I should love a punctuation mark that has my name in it, but alas I—Em— do not. In fact, em dashes really do nothing but add more work for me as it takes several key combinations just to create an em dash. But I do enjoy the aesthetic look.


Image credit: Moira Clunie via Flickr

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