Punctuation Pizzazz with the Em-Dash

The em-dash is one of my favorite punctuation marks. No worries if you have no idea what an em-dash is. I didn’t either until I became an editor. Well, I knew what it was, I just didn’t know its name.

I love the em-dash because it’s got some pizazz. As a reader, it catches my eye and makes me pay attention to what follows it. As a writer, I can use it to slow a moment down fast, to create a mood, and to guide the readers’ attention to a detail I don’t want them to miss. The em-dash can’t be ignored.

The em-dash looks like this: — .

It is often confused with the hyphen (-) and the en-dash (–). But the em-dash (—) is longer than the hyphen and the en-dash. In the old days of typesetting, the em-dash was the width of the letter M, hence its name.

How do you use an em-dash:

  • To show an interruption in dialogue

“How could you let the dog eat—”

“Mom, the dog is puking on the rug!”

  • To show an abrupt break in thought

Mmmmm, these peanut butter cups are even better than Reese’s. The kids will demolish these. Where can I hi—

A better mom wouldn’t hide chocolate from her children. I should share—oh yeah, I don’t “should” myself anymore. These babies are all mi—

“Mom, what are you eating? Can I have some?”

  • To set off or amplify information (can replace parentheses, commas, or colons)

I love the heat—scorching, lizard-basking heat—but it’s weird to be sweating this much in October.

  • To show stuttering of whole words

I don’t—don’t think tubing down Deep Creek is a good idea. It’s looking not so deep.

How do you type an em-dash in Microsoft Word:

  • Autocorrect: may change two hyphens with no space into an em-dash (–). To see, type two hyphens (or minus signs), and then hit enter.
  • Keyboard shortcut: Type Control+Alt+NumLock+Minus at same time.
  • Insert Tabà Symbol à More Symbols à Special Characters à Em Dash à Insert à Close

Use with Care

Like any punctuation mark that commands the readers’ attention, use the em-dash with care. If you oversaturate your writing with them, they lose all their flavor.