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How to Use — and Not Use — the Almighty Em Dash

It can do anything, but just don’t try to make it do everything

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

Let’s get one thing out of the way — I love em dashes. For instance, that last sentence should’ve used a colon. Let’s get one thing out of the way: I love em dashes. Nope! You’re outta here, colon. Go find a serial list to preface.

Loving the em dash treads a fine and dangerous line, though. It’s one of the most flexible pieces of punctuation at a writer’s disposal, but that flexibility can lead to pitfalls from overuse to straight-up misuse. In other words, you should probably learn to be judicious in deploying it, lest your work start to look like a second-rate impression of Emily Dickinson. Or a 17th-century pamphleteer. (Which isn’t really a thing you find that often, but still would probably clutter up your writing.)

First, some unnecessary context. An em dash is the most assertive member of the hyphen family; em is typographer-speak for the full width of whatever point size you’re writing in. Looking at the top of my screen right now — and I should admit here that I’m writing this not in Medium’s own editor, but in Google Docs — I see that I’m using Arial 12, which makes an em dash 12 points wide. There’s also an en dash, which is half as wide as an em dash. En dashes are usually used in number ranges, like 1902–1987, which is the lifespan of Clara Peller, the “Where’s the Beef?” lady from Wendy’s mid-’80s ad campaign. And then there’s the hyphen, the tiny but stalwart star of phone numbers and compound adjectives like “ill-advised” (as in “his ill-advised Clara Peller reference ensured that no one would keep reading”).

Some people like to use two hyphens to approximate an em dash. Don’t do that! I mean, go ahead and do that, but it just doesn’t look as polished. Thankfully, it’s easy to type an em dash without hunting through byzantine drop-down menus or Googling lists of Unicode shortcuts: shift-option-hyphen. Try it. Isn’t that nice?

By and large, an em dash serves to insert a break in your thought without ending your thought entirely. (Other things can do that too, but we’ll get to those in a bit.) You can achieve that thought-break in two primary ways: using the em dash as a bridge, or as a bookend. We’re going to do the second one first, because it’s much simpler.

The bookend

Using em dashes as bookends is a great way to create a sub-sentence of sorts, to nest a thought inside another thought. Think of them as parentheses’ slightly more literate cousin: they’re not snobby, but you know they’ve got a kickass bookshelf in their apartment. In its most frequent and popular application, that lets you properly unpack what you mean before moving on to the rest of the sentence. Here’s an example, from a piece I wrote earlier this year:

Sometimes nothing would turn into something — wood-tip Swishers stuffed with what passed for weed back then, off-campus parties that didn’t mind a couple of high school kids — but always, ultimately, the night would end the same way it began.

But those bookends can also let you break the fourth wall, like an aside to the reader. Hey, take a break from this essay for a second; let’s talk over here in private. I kinda did this above:

Looking at the top of my screen right now — and I should admit here that I’m writing this not in Medium’s own editor, but in Google Docs — I see that I’m using Arial 12, which makes an em dash 12 points wide.

Hacky? Maybe. But not as hacky as parentheses would have been!

The bridge

Now comes something that feels just as easy, but can run into trouble all the same.

Used as a bridge, an em dash emphasizes whatever comes after it — like the pause before a punch line.

But it also has the nifty trick of resetting the sentence’s odometer, so you can add details or even change subjects for the rest of the sentence (!) without hitting run-on territory. Whatever comes next, the em dash tells you, will be its own section of the thought. Here’s an example, from another piece I wrote earlier this year:

“That coda became a post-interview ritual of sorts over the years for certain artists, a way to wrap things up with a note of thanks — not for the interviews, but for music that reflected where life had taken them.”

That em dash could have been a comma, right? But think about what would have happened:

“That coda became a post-interview ritual of sorts over the years for certain artists, a way to wrap things up with a note of thanks, not for the interviews, but for music that reflected where life had taken them.”

Ugly to read, and even uglier to parse. If you read the two sentences out loud to yourself — something you should be doing with your own writing already — you’ll hear the difference. With the comma, you probably keep the same cadence from the sentence’s beginning to its end. With the em dash, you take a longer pause, maybe even hit the rest of the sentence in a slightly different register. And whatever your voice is doing, your reader’s brain is doing, too.

But wait!

As you’ve probably already realized, em dashes aren’t unique. A semicolon also gives you the freedom to stop and change direction entirely, while still leaving a connection between the two thoughts in the sentence. A pair of commas can also create a parenthetical thought. A colon can also tee up details to unpack what came before. So it’s helpful to think about when not to use the em dash, and instead to rely on all the other tools in your writer’s Swiss Army knife.

Don’t use an em dash in a sentence that already uses “advanced” punctuation

Commas? Sure. But packing an em dash into a sentence that already has a colon or semicolon is a sure sign that you’re trying to do too much. Chances are you’ve got three sentences packed in there, and they’re all suffocating each other. Instead, think about how you can break them up and still give the reader a lovely through line. Paragraphs have rhythm just like sentences do, and consistency has a sneaky way of turning into monotony.

Don’t use them instead of simple commas

I’ve seen this sort of thing a lot in inexperienced writers’ drafts: Before I had a chance to get out of bed — my phone rang. If it’s a simple sentence with a single thought, chances are a comma can do the job. Let it.

Don’t use them when you don’t need to

Em dashes are seductive in large part because they feel naturalistic. We talk in loops and asides, interrupting ourselves and doubling back to qualify our own statements, so seeking to capture that quality is an understandable impulse. But writing doesn’t need to replicate the foibles of speech in order to sound conversational — and clarity often comes from brevity.

Don’t use them, period. Or at least try not to

If you can’t make it through a paragraph without using them, think about why you’re using them. Do you need that many punchlines? Does the reader really want to be interrupted that many times? If you look at something you’ve written and you can see more than two occurrences in a single screen’s worth of writing, see if you can pare them down. Chances are the piece’ll be better for it.

No one is immune to these issues. (Seriously, ask my editors.) But keep them in mind and keep things simple, and you’ll have a new favorite tool in your belt. Just make sure it’s a scalpel, not a hammer.

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Peter Rubin

Peter Rubin

Executive Editor at LEVEL. Culture, virtual and otherwise.