Em Dash (—): How to Use Correctly

Summary

Em dashes are versatile punctuation marks that can replace commas, parentheses, colons, and semicolons in sentences. Use em dashes to explain, amplify, or build upon a statement.

Examples
  • I can help you win—if that is what you want.
  • All forms of payment—credit cards, gift cards, checks, cash—are acceptable.
  • Cats are mysterious creatures—they have magic powers and can travel to other dimensions.

An em dash can also introduce a list or a series.

Example
  • Lulu wants it all—fame, fortune, adventure, and comfortable sandals.

An em dash can be used to place a list at the front of a sentence.

Example
  • Sedans, hatchbacks, SUVs, trucks—we sell all kinds of vehicles.

Also use em dashes to mark asides and interruptions.

Example
  • Her father—that is, the man who claims to be her father—turned up this morning.

Em dashes are more emphatic and dramatic than other punctuation marks like commas and colons, and are seen more often in informal and creative writing than in formal texts.

What is an em dash?

An em dash (—) sets off parenthetical and explanatory statements. It introduces information that amplifies and builds upon something that precedes it. It can also be used to mark dialogue, signify an interruption, indicate a sudden break in thought, or introduce a list.

Examples
  • Consumer goods that were once luxuries are now necessities—refrigerators, microwave ovens, air conditioners, personal computers, mobile phones.
  • We need more people like her—people who aren’t afraid of the truth.
  • All forms of public transport—trains, buses, ferries, metro—are shut until further notice.
  • My mother was—is—a teacher.
  • Porcelain cats, beaded boxes, wooden monkeys—the room was filled with knickknacks.
Tip

The em dash (—), also called the em rule, derives its name from being the same width as the capital letter M. It is the longest of the commonly used dashes, longer than an en dash (–), which in turn is longer than a hyphen (-).

The em dash is a versatile punctuation mark that can replace commas, parentheses, semicolons, and colons in sentences. In this article, we discuss how to use an em dash correctly.

To provide additional information

Use em dashes in place of commas to enlarge upon ideas and present additional information, especially when this information is not closely related to the text.

Examples
  • Maya made a decision that day—a decision that would lead to an unexpected adventure.
  • She waved at us—a sad, hopeful little wave.
  • My mother was a kind woman—impatient, irritable, irascible, but kind.
Note

An em dash is often simply called a dash.

Also use an em dash instead of a comma to avoid ambiguity—for example, when an appositive already contains commas.

Examples
  • Her children—Poco, Tiko, and Loco—attended the ceremony.
  • Maya has published four books—a biography, a poetry collection, and two novels.
  • Three animals—a bear, a panther, and a tiger—feature prominently in this story.
  • Poco—who already owns four cars, one of which is a Porsche—has bought himself a Ferrari.

In the examples above, you could also use parentheses (or brackets in British usage). However, parentheses diminish the importance of the text they enclose. If the information is important and you want it to stand out, use em dashes instead.

Caution

Don’t forget to close the em dash when it sets off a parenthetical element.

Examples
  • Incorrect: While studying—well, pretending to study, Nesbit fell asleep.
    Correct: While studying—well, pretending to study—Nesbit fell asleep.
  • Incorrect: Three people—the researcher, her assistant, and the subject of the study together received the award.
    Correct: Three people—the researcher, her assistant, and the subject of the study—together received the award.

To amplify a statement

Use an em dash to introduce new information that explains or builds upon something that precedes it. When used this way, to indicate that one statement amplifies or adds to another, the em dash replaces a colon.

Examples
  • What was more distressing was the sense of loss—not only had he lost his partner but also his best friend.
  • Maya thought it a magnificent house—it had huge bay windows, an elegant driveway, and a gabled roof.

An em dash can also replace a colon to introduce a list or series of elements in a sentence.

Examples
  • I wanted it all—travel, adventure, excitement, a daily sense of anticipation.
  • We serve confectionary—cookies, cakes, cupcakes, and candy.
Tip

Both a colon and an em dash can be used to explain or build upon a statement. The colon is quieter; the em dash is more emphatic or dramatic. The dash is therefore seen more often in informal and creative writing than in formal texts, where the colon is preferred.

The em dash can also be used in place of a semicolon to connect two closely related clauses.

Examples
  • I’ve tried everything—nothing works.
  • People say they hate airports—not me, I love the bustle and activity and watching everyone know where they’re going.
  • At the corner I turned around and waved at her—that was the last time I saw her.

After a list

The em dash can also be used to start a sentence with a list. This technique is especially useful when the listed elements appear unrelated at first glance, and their description helps the reader link them together.

Examples
  • Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, and warm woolen mittens—these are some of Julie Andrews’ favorite things.
  • A black tie, a silk jacket, and woolen pants—that is all Farley wore to the North Pole.
  • Commas, parentheses, colons, semicolons—all of these can be replaced by em dashes.

A single noun phrase at the start of a sentence can also be followed by an explanatory statement set off by an em dash.

Examples
  • Procrastination—it will always be my nemesis.
  • Truth—does it even mean anything to you?
  • A hot cup of tea—that’s all I need to relax.

To mark an aside

Use em dashes to mark an aside and present information tangential to the meaning of a sentence.

Examples
  • My new sandals—I bought them just yesterday—have fallen apart.
  • The cat—she had been yowling since 4 a.m.—curled up and fell asleep as soon as the alarm rang.
  • The cat—or what I thought was a cat—turned out to be an interdimensional traveler.

To signal a sudden break

Use em dashes to set off an abrupt break in thought within a sentence.

Examples
  • The thief—or was it a ghost?—vanished just as I peeked out the window.
  • I saw—hey, what’s that?—I saw something strange streak across the sky.
  • Maya loves—no, she adores—black roses.

Pauses can similarly be signified by an em dash in writing.

Examples
  • “Could you—atishoo!—could you pass me a tissue?”
  • “I wantI want nothing at all, really.”

To punctuate dialogue

Writers sometimes use em dashes instead of quotation marks to mark dialogue.

Example
  • —Do you think he’ll keep his promise?
    —I hope so, but who can tell? He hasn’t been himself for days.

To signify interruption

Interrupted speech is shown by means of an em dash.

Example
  • “I really think—”
    “It’s no use. There’s nothing else we can do.”
Tip

Use an ellipsis (. . .) to indicate an unfinished thought but an em dash to show interrupted speech.

Example
  • Unfinished thought: “I think . . .”
    Interrupted speech: “I think—”

In poetry

Em dashes can be used in poetry to explain an idea or signify a break in thought.

Example
  • “For I have known them all already, known them all—
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons . . .”
    T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” 1915

Emily Dickinson is famous for using dashes to great effect in her poems.

Example
  • “Forever—is composed of Nows—
    ’Tis not a different time—
    Except for Infiniteness—
    And Latitude of Home—”
    — Emily Dickinson, “Forever—is composed of Nows— (690),” 1863

Of course, unless you are one of the great reclusive poets of the nineteenth century, avoid using quite so many em dashes.

Tip

The source of quoted material (e.g., an author’s name) can be presented using an em dash.

Spaces around em dash

Spaces do not typically enclose em dashes in academic and business writing. In news copy, however, spaces often surround this dash.

Examples
  • “Let’s consider the most versatile piece of punctuation — the dash.”
    — “Mad Dash,” The New York Times, October 22, 2012
  • “Pelosi outlines a path to victory for House Democrats in 2020 — and guarantees it”
    — Headline in The Washington Post, April 6, 2019

In print, typographers may prefer to surround the em dash with spaces. Spaces are not generally used in electronic copy.

Spaced en dash in British usage

In British style, a spaced en dash is used instead of an em dash.

Examples
  • “His only possessions were a canvas bag, a pair of torn trousers and a blanket – all as filthy as himself.”
    Paul Scott, Staying On, 1977
  • “Not just this second, but the next and the next – all the time in the world.”
    Zadie Smith, White Teeth, 2000
  • “He worked with a group of volunteers – largely students and other anti-war activists – to build an artificial roof to hold the shark outside his studio.”
    — “‘It went in beautifully as the postman was passing’: the story of the Headington Shark,” The Guardian, April 7, 2019

Examples from published content

Here are some examples from writing that show how em dashes (or spaced en dashes) can help provide additional information that explains or amplifies a statement.

Examples
  • During the Second World War, countless manuscripts—diaries, memoirs, eyewitness accounts—were lost or destroyed. Some of these narratives were deliberately hidden—buried in back gardens, tucked into walls and under floors—by those who did not live to retrieve them.
    Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces (1996)
  • Growing older is mainly an ordeal of the imagination—a moral disease, a social pathology—intrinsic to which is the fact that it afflicts women much more than men.
    Susan Sontag, “The Double Standard of Aging,” Saturday Review (Sep. 23, 1972)
  • Not responding is a response—we are equally responsible for what we don’t do.
    Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (2009)

The following examples show how an em dash is more emphatic than a comma or a colon, and how it can add drama to a sentence.

Examples
  • One would think a writer would be happy here—if a writer is ever happy anywhere.
    Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953)
  • A little-known United Nations agency decided to make an impact by doling out loans and grant money—all to a single family. It did not go well.
    — “Why Did a U.N. Agency Give a Family $61 Million?” New York Times (May 7, 2022)

And in this example, we see how em dashes can enclose an aside or other tangential information.

Example
  • Then I noticed two flat stones in the ground, a distance of a few feet—six feet?—from the upright stone.
    Alice Munro, “Meneseteung,” Friend of My Youth (1990)

How to insert an em dash

To insert an em dash in Microsoft Word, use one of these four ways, whichever you find convenient:

  1. Type two hyphens one after the other(--), type the word that comes after the em dash, and press Space on your keyboard. Voila—the double hyphen turns into a single em dash! (This magic only works if AutoFormat is enabled in Word.)
  2. If your keyboard has a numeric keypad, hold down the Ctrl and Alt keys and press the minus sign on the numpad: Ctrl+Alt+minus (on numpad).
  3. If your keyboard has a numeric keypad, hold down the Alt key and press 0151 on the numpad: Alt+0151 (on numpad).
  4. Go to the Insert menu. Choose Symbol, click the Special Characters tab, highlight the em dash, and click Insert.

In software that does not support extended (or Unicode) characters, it is acceptable to use two hyphens (--) in place of an em dash. In applications such as Notepad and other text editors, copying and pasting from Word works.

Usage guide

Em dashes are versatile punctuation marks that can replaces commas, colons, parentheses, and semicolons in writing. Use em dashes to set off parenthetical statements, amplify a thought, begin a sentence with a list or a single noun and then provide an explanatory statement, or to mark asides, interruptions, and sudden turns in thought. Em dashes are easily overused—take care to use them only when necessary, particularly in formal writing, such as academic and business texts.

Quick Quiz

In which sentence is the em dash used correctly?
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In which sentence is the em dash used correctly?
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Which sentence is punctuated correctly?
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Which of these sentences would be clearer to the reader?
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Which of these signals an interruption?
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All done!

Did You Know?

Bullets are used in a list when the order or number of listed items isn’t important.
Know more:Lists: Bullets, Numbers, Capitalization, Punctuation