Ode to the em dash

woman's hands typing on a laptop

Just a little post to pay homage to the humble em dash—oft maligned, oft misunderstood, but a punctuation mark that punches way above its weight class. And I know that authors shouldn’t play favourites, but of all the punctuation out there, the em dash is my fave. It’s just so versatile!

Know your em dash

Many will confuse the en dash – and the em dash — but my tip to remember which is which is a simple mnemonic device:

An ‘m’ (em dash) is twice as wide as ‘n’ (en dash) so it is the wider of the two dashes.

The power of the em dash

Use em dashes to:

1. offset parenthetical content from the sentence

e.g. Josh is planning a surprise for Sarah’s fortieth birthday. My thinking is that turning forty is surprise enough—Oh, my god, how on earth am I this old?—and that she hates surprises.

2. denote interrupted speech

e.g.

‘But can’t we just—’

She talks over me. ‘Jaelee, I wasn’t super keen on this in the first place.’

3. to denote interrupted thoughts

‘I will see you tonight,’ says my sexy boyfriend—no, sorry, fiancé!

4. in place of a colon preceding a list

e.g.

a. ‘That is the best part, the countryside—the fields of sunflowers, the towns, the castles.’

b. I round a corner and the wall drops to waist height, revealing a thick blanket of lush green—palm trees, ferns, thick brush with glossy leaves, and high grass.

5. to show a ‘change in direction’ of a thought, or in narration or dialogue

e.g.

a. I look up from the shopping and her cheeks are pink with frustration—or maybe it’s exertion.

b. ‘Yeah, I don’t ever drink beer—unless it’s, like, craft beer.’

6. to expand on a point

e.g.

a. And it’s hot. I mean, crazy, fricking, humid hot. And I’m from Miami—I know heat and I know humidity, but this stuff is next level.

b. Besides, I may have limited culinary skills but I am a master at making toast and tea—the perfect elixir for the infirmed.

You see? A powerful (not so) little dash.

Till next time when we unpack ellipses …

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