Monday, June 10, 2013

Em Dashes: The Correct Way to Write Them into Your Text

Happy Monday everyone! Em dashes may appear to be of minor importance in your writing, but this is an important read since I can count on one hand—one hand—the number of writers who have not had to receive this edit from me. 

Em Dashes. Okay, I’m really holding back on a rant because these little suckers taunt me all day, and I dislike writing about copyedits. But this is such a prevalent mistake that I want to help clarify it any way I can. 

What is an Em Dash?
An em dash (—), also a long dash, is a punctuation mark used to emphasize/repeat a section of text—like I did above—or insert an aside/nonessential comment into the sentence—like I’m doing here. The mark has other uses, like denoting the author of a quote, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll leave more thorough discussions for blogs focused on copyedits. For those of you English nerds, Emily Dickinson loved these things and used them all the time in her poetry.

How is an Em Dash Different from Other Dashes
To demystify the em dash, let’s go over two other common types of “dashes.” (In quotes since the following aren’t all considered dashes.)

En Dash ()
An en dash () is different from an em dash. There are lots of subtle uses for this punctuation mark, and if you’re interested in looking it up and learning more about it, go for it. (Can you tell I love discussing punctuation?) For now I’ll just state that it’s most common use is in ranges of values—more specifically, years.

Hyphen (-)
Most of you are familiar with the hyphen, which—like the em and en dash—has multiple uses, but it most commonly used to compound two distinct words or the syllables of the same word. It’s sort of a misnomer to call this a dash, but since they look similar, it’s easy to confuse the two.

What’s Causing the Confusion?
There are a few reasons why the em dash is so difficult to punctuate correctly, listed below.

Different Styles
Part of the reason that there is confusion over how to correctly punctuate an em dash is that there are multiple ways of doing this. Some style guides allow writers to replace an em dash (—) with an en dash bordered by a space on either side ( – ). For the record, I’m against this style in the world of fiction writing for a couple reasons. 

One, the predominate punctuation mark used in the American style (as opposed to the British style) is the em dash, and it is the punctuation mark that the Chicago Manual of Style recommends.

Two, en dashes are also routinely formatted incorrectly. I see this all the time because most (if not all) keyboards don’t have a key for an en dash. That means that, just like an em dash, Word has to auto format these. So, so often I see a single hyphen bordered by a space on either side trying to pass as an em dash.

Formatting an Em Dash
I think I’ve already proven via explanation how much of a headache formatting these little suckers can be. Writers can create an em dash using a combo of hyphens, en dashes, and spaces, but there is only one correct way—okay two correct ways, but I prefer one over the other—to get an em dash.

How to Format an Em Dash
Here’s how you can fix those em dashes once and for all.

Step One 
Come to a place where you need to insert an em dash.

Ex. “Hey wait

Step Two
Insert two hyphens following the word that will precede your em dash.

Ex. “Hey wait--
***Make sure that there are NO SPACES between the word and the two hyphens.

Step Three
Insert the word that follows the em dash

Ex. “Hey wait--what?”
***Again make sure that there are no spaces in between the hyphens and the words that border it.

Step Four
Hit the space bar after you add on the word that follows the em dash, and Microsoft Word will auto format this into an em dash.

Ex. “Hey wait—what?”

Note that Word only auto formats two hyphens into an em dash when a word follows it. This means that if you have punctuation (such as quotation marks) or nothing that follows your em dash, you’re going to have to write in a placeholder word, hit the space key for it to auto format, and then delete the word. You might be able to play with this a little on your own version of Word and set it up to auto format it always, but I’m guessing that many of you, like me, are a little allergic to technology.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. As one who regularly uses--and abuses--the em dash (not to mention parenthesis; I just loves me some parenthetical references), I greatly appreciate this post. Funny thing, I'm going back through one of my manuscripts and finding that, somewhere along the way, I replaced properly-formatted em dashes with improperly-formatted em dashes that turned into en dashes. I must have read somewhere that it was preferred to have spaces. I've been fixing those. Thanks!

    1. Haha, I'm glad to hear this helped! It makes this post worth it!

  2. i think this is a great post. over the past few months i think i've figured out how to do this correctly, but it's always nice to read your advice and make sure i'm doing it properly! thanks!

    1. Did you happen to have one of those "ah ha!" moments? (I remember I did when I finally realized this nifty trick.) I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed the post! Thanks for dropping a line! :)