Getting to Know the Em Dash

capital m

As we mentioned in our recent post about the hyphen, the en dash and the em dash are two of the most misunderstood punctuation marks in English. How should you use them? The en dash is primarily used in continuing numbers or dates taking the place of “to” or “through,” as in “The festival will be held from May 2–4.” The em dash is an incredibly versatile punctuation mark that can be used in lieu of parentheses, commas, colons, or quotation marks or to signal an interruption or amplification of an idea.

When Vulture pointed out some of the best punctuation marks in literature, they cited this sentence from George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea?” Here the narrator is so distracted by the attention reaped on Dorothea that she interrupts her sentence with a rhetorical question. F. Scott Fitzgerald also relied on the em dash, particularly in The Great Gatsby: “I lived at West Egg, the—well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them.”

Why are they called en and em dash? The names come from typography—the work of setting, arranging, and printing types. An em is a unit of measurement defined by a capital M in the typeface being used, thus an em dash is a dash that is the width of an M. An en is half of an em and bears no direct relation to the size of the capital N. (In antiquated typography slang, an en was also frequently called a nut or a molly, to clearly distinguish it from an em.)

The debate about the merits and potential abuse of the em dash rages. Back in 2011, Slate inveighed against the em dash, claiming that it was being overused, leading to sloppy prose. Then in 2012, Ben Yagoda extolled the virtues of the em dash in a blog at the New York Times.

Our editors have noticed the hyphen, double hyphen and minus sign encroaching on the territory of the em dash with increasing frequency in recent years. In the massive digitization project, Google Books treats hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes as the same character, translating them all into “–”. Neither the en nor the em appear on standard keyboards making them even harder to use. In order to find an em dash in Google Docs, a user must navigate through the Insert menu into Special Characters, though the Punctuation drop down and finally into Dash/Connector to find the lowly em dash: —. (Of course the dash-conscious typer could always memorize the keyboard shortcut.)

Conversely, Microsoft Word automatically translate a hyphen into a double hyphen), but this does not mitigate the risks of an em dash in the wild. An exacerbating factor may be that using non-standard characters (like the en dash and the em dash) risks corrupting the text because many platforms do not use the same character standards (see Google Books above). The conscientious web editor might now purposely avoid the elegant em dash out of fear that it will display as the dreaded ? on em-dash incompatible sites or devices.

Do you often use the en and em dash? What do you think about them?



  1. Satch Carlson -  January 25, 2016 - 4:58 pm

    Many applications allow you to program your own shortcuts, so in Word, my F11 and F12 keys have been programmed to produce—you guessed it—en and em dashes at a single stroke.

    Working in InDesign has taught me to memorize alt+1050 and alt+1051 on the number pad. (There are keyboard shortcuts that allow me to correct quotation marks into inch marks and replace the single opening quote with a proper apostrophe.)

    A man who would leave spaces before and after an em dash would steal sheep.

  2. Shadeburst -  December 22, 2014 - 1:09 am

    How odd to find “exacerbating” and an exceptionally ugly example of the split infinitive in the same article.

  3. Tom Jacobs -  August 29, 2014 - 7:41 am

    I am quite astonished about this article. As a Dutchman I have been learning British English since I was 12, and good old Mr. Mulder, who was a master in his teaching trade, taught us an impeccable pronounciation, a host of idioms, a exuberating set of grammatical rules, a magnificent array of Don’ts, but never once was the concept of em- or en-dash mentioned. Nor when I completed my studies as a sworn translator. And now hearing not just about their existence, but also different character like minus-sign and negative-sign.
    I simply use the hyphen in all those cases where you apparently need an extra keyboard to produce these characters. I would not be able to tell one from another, and I have no need for them, because the hyphen suites my purposes perfectly.

    • Kit Snicket -  March 9, 2015 - 8:16 pm

      Dictionary.com is indeed a wonder.

  4. Driftboy -  June 4, 2014 - 7:04 am

    OKAY! I’m still confused as to the use of this “em dash” :-( , somebody please explain to me in simpler terms :-D , I wanna LEARN!!!! :-)

    Twitter: @Real_Driftboy ;-)

    • ZE -  August 4, 2014 - 7:26 pm

      an’ dats what ya call an “over-user of smileys” :/

      • Seib -  August 13, 2014 - 8:04 pm

        No, that’s what you call “a healthy user of emotion-indicating graphics”.

        • Donna -  August 24, 2016 - 7:31 pm

          All right, I’ve reconsidered. This is the gathering place for the grammatically obsessed, so I take back what I called you. Everyone here, just by being here, proves to be grammar-curious, so carry on! :)

      • Donna -  August 24, 2016 - 7:29 pm

        And that’s what you call a grammar nazi. ;)

    • Kit Snicket -  March 9, 2015 - 8:17 pm

      An em dash is often used like a bracket.

      The panda-or it might have been a duck-was purple.

      That is just one of many uses, but it is the most common.

  5. mike -  May 6, 2014 - 7:03 am

    The “em dash” is an indespensible mark.It is used to elongate connections of phrases not properly handled by commas, semi-colons, colons, and “en dashes”. It is a “strong” connection and is precisely explained in Strunk and White.
    I use it all the time; one must be careful to not overuse it — which is tempting. If you look closely, I was not able to use my handy assigned shortcut for the “em” (ctrl+alt+7) between “it” and “which” in the preceeding sentence. This is proof of the discrimination, by the current age, against such useful punctuation!

    • mike -  May 6, 2014 - 7:07 am

      Ah-ha, the tricky formatter turned my dashes into an “em” dash — there is hope for this generation yet!

    • Someone Else -  May 6, 2014 - 12:01 pm

      i use it all time — usually incorrectly.

      • Adina -  August 4, 2014 - 4:01 pm

        I utilize the em-dash frequently as well—but the code I prefer is “alt+0151″.

        (I also know that the quotation mark should be outside the end period, but I believe it makes more sense to leave it out.)

        • Adina -  August 4, 2014 - 4:03 pm

          Ah, that is, I believe that it makes more sense to leave the end period out—not, of course, the end quotation mark.

      • A. Paige White -  August 7, 2014 - 8:08 pm

        I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  6. Ambrose -  May 5, 2014 - 9:03 am

    The em-dash (as well as the en-dash) is only not present on PC keyboards. It has been standard on Mac keyboards since… the 80s?

    • trumpman -  May 11, 2014 - 9:20 am

      Strange, I’ve never seen either an em nor en dash key on any keyboard I’ve ever used. Give us a clue as to its keyboard location.

  7. Daniel -  May 5, 2014 - 8:06 am

    The em-dash is mostly an American English character. In British and in Canadian English the en-dash is normally used in its place, with spaces either side.

  8. Josh -  May 4, 2014 - 9:12 pm

    I’m a big fan of the non-spaced em dash–that is, an em dash without spaces on either side. Sadly, the difficulty of applying the em dash on webpages means I usually use the double hyphen in its place. But in Word I always use the em dash, and Word makes it easy by autocorrecting a double hyphen to such.

    Apart from the ellipsis, the em dash is my favorite interruptive punctuation mark, and I would love for web standards organizations to make it more universal.

    I don’t use the en dash nearly as often, but I do use it in Word. From an aesthetic perspective a regular hyphen is too dinky to replace the en dash. If I have to do so, on the Internet I’ll use a spaced hyphen in place of an en dash (e.g., 1950 – 2014), but I’d really prefer an en dash there.

    I also treat the subtraction operator and the negative sign as completely different symbols. This comes up less frequently. Technically the en dash and the subtraction operator are two different symbols, but the latter is so obscure that my usual preference is to substitute the former. The negative sign is the rarest of all, and I usually substitute it with a simple hyphen.

    • jaysear -  May 12, 2014 - 9:05 am

      It’s really not hard to type in em- and en-dashes though—just use the keyboard shortcuts. E.g., on my Mac, the en-dash is ALT+-, and the em-dash is SHIFT+ALT+-. I would imagine it’s something similar—or anyway not much more obscure—on a Windows keyboard? (And of course, you can define the shortcuts you want in specific programs like Word.)

  9. WalkingCivilWar -  May 3, 2014 - 1:37 am

    I completed an apprenticeship in Typesetting (at the time called Composing) in 1980, before the introduction of computers. I still maintain that you cannot fully appreciate any character in terms of it’s function and correct usage until you hold a tiny metal version it in your hand.

    • WalkingCivilWar -  May 3, 2014 - 1:45 am

      I left the word “of” out of my last sentence. Well, I said I did say I was an apprentice. I didn’t say I was a good one ;D

    • Lucifer -  May 26, 2014 - 12:41 am

      “of it’s function” should read “of its function”

  10. Eleanor -  May 2, 2014 - 12:28 pm

    The em dash is one of my favorite punctuation marks. It’s safe to say I use it in nearly every piece of writing I do (perhaps a little too frequently?) As for the en dash, I usually use a hyphen in lieu.

  11. Cane -  May 1, 2014 - 9:42 am

    Articles like this let me know I’m not alone. Or crazy. I use the em dash when formatting in HTML. In MS Word, I noticed that it automatically produces the em dash if I’m haphazardly using the space bar after the dash. I enjoyed this article. Stuff like this is important!

    • A. Paige White -  August 7, 2014 - 8:18 pm

      I agree! I just love words.

  12. Lorie Wolf -  April 30, 2014 - 10:28 pm

    The root of the problem is that the truncated standard QWERTY computer keyboard (keyboards without the number pad to the side) have the math functions along the top of the keyboard. Due a lack of keyboard space, laptops abandon the “M” and “N” dashes all together unless option/shift keys are employed.

    On apple IOS the functions are shift option minus for the “M” dash — and option minus for the “N” dash –. Use them!

  13. Jackson -  April 30, 2014 - 11:17 am

    The double hyphen is a throwback to manual typewriter days. Old typewriters didn’t have an em dash, so writers had to type “–” to simulate it, and then the typesetter would insert the appropriate dash. Later, programs like Wordperfect — remember that? — automatically transformed “–” into wannabe em dashes but the tendency to type double hyphens persists. At a certain very large content mill I shan’t name, the style guide encourages us to use double hyphens in place of em dashes — no exceptions.

  14. Alyssa -  April 30, 2014 - 7:23 am

    I appreciate this lesson and confirming that the em dash is not anywhere to be found on my standard keyboard. It’s indeed caused me confusion for some time.

  15. Cori K -  April 29, 2014 - 8:34 pm

    “Do you often use the en and em dash?”

    Only when I’m setting type, sadly. The rest of the time, I’m relegated to their lowlier, keyboard-friendly cousins.

  16. Xenobio -  April 29, 2014 - 8:28 pm

    i’m really fussy about using emdashes or double hyphens at work – I’m a biologist – because there are dumbos in my company who do stuff like use uppercase zeroes for degree signs so if the text gets reformatted you end up with stuff like “the cells were incubated at 370C” so I’m very paranoid about dashes e.g. between numbers from–to mutating into minus signs. Outside of technical writing a bit less fussy.

  17. Frisco -  April 29, 2014 - 1:33 pm

    I am part of an editing & proofreading team, and we have been spending a goodly portion of our time reformatting misused hyphens, en dashes, and the dreaded double-hyphen (–) into em dashes. Fortunately, the software we use has a very friendly ‘Insert Character’ menu for just such occasions.

    And, of course, deleting the erroneous spaces on either side of the illustrious character :)

    • Deacon Solomon -  April 29, 2014 - 9:14 pm

      You can’t be much good as an editor and proofreader if you write “we have been spending a goodly portion of our time. . . .” when all you need to say is “we spend a lot of time. . . .”

      The word “our” is redundant because you can’t spend somebody else’s time.

      My question to you is: Is verbosity an expression of ventosity?

    • Max -  May 1, 2014 - 6:15 am

      Frisco, you have just blown my mind. I have been using em dashes for quite some time now, and just realized I have been leaving erroneous spaces on either side! Thank you!

    • Susan -  May 5, 2014 - 8:29 am

      AP style calls for a space on either side of the em dash. Chicago Manual does not. For old-school journalists, the preferred style is with the spaces on either side of the em dash.

      • Otter D. -  June 22, 2015 - 10:38 pm

        In general (i.e., according to the majority of guides) em-dashes in American English do not require spaces on either side; logically, one might even suggest that the spaces detract from the interjecting significance of the punctuation. AP’s for-journalists style is very particular; many common styles (such as italicizing long-text titles) change in AP. Chicago, APA, MLA all use em-dashes with no spaces (again, in American syntax). Of course the rise of online texts has increased the use of spaces on either side, which—like the additional space between paragraphs in MS Word—is most often endorsed for legibility reasons. In any case, I agree that it’d be nice if keyboards came with an em-dash key (allowing spaces or not for the various styles).

  18. raymond -  April 29, 2014 - 1:13 pm

    This is n-teresting news.

  19. Dan -  April 29, 2014 - 12:13 pm

    All languages change with time, and for various reasons.
    The period should appear outside quotation marks, but because of press issues (fear the period would fall off), the period was moved inside quote marks.
    Why not condense all these flat, floating symbols into one? It is the language evolving.

  20. John Długosz -  April 29, 2014 - 12:12 pm

    I have inserted thousands of em and en dashes on Wikipeida articles, as well as math minus. I correct the little speck of the ASCII hyphen-minus with vigor.

    Unlike the author of this article and most users, I do have them on my keyboard. You can see my setup at the website I gave with the comment, assuming it is shown publically. Otherwise, ask Google for “Dlugosz zeta keyboard” and when I tried just now it was the first three hits. BTW, you may notice that I typed the curved quotes, too. :)

  21. Kivrin Engle -  April 28, 2014 - 9:39 pm

    “(Of course the dash-conscious typer could always memorize the keyboard shortcut.)”

    Alt+0150 and Alt+0151, baby.

    • Julie -  May 1, 2014 - 10:38 am

      I use the em and en dashes all the time! They’re totally staples in my design and publishing work, though I have to admit that I’ve rarely gone out of my way to use them in anything outside of InDesign.

    • Gene Rybarczyk -  May 4, 2014 - 1:47 am

      Oh, wow! Now I have genuine em dashes for my Gmail and won’t have to depend on cobbled-together hyphens, the use of which can be subject.to arbitrary end-of-line quasi-hyphenation splitting and other unexpected formatting abuses. Thank you, Kivrin Engle.

      • marty -  July 7, 2014 - 3:42 am

        HOW are you able to get/use em dashes in your Gmail?! I am having no luck and very much need to use them!
        THANK YOU!


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