Em Dash Usage and Examples

The em dash performs a versatile function to help separate certain words from the rest of a sentence. They also can be used to focus a reader or highlight tone within a dialog. But, to use these marks effectively, you must understand the various rules associated with their use. 

An em dash sets off material more dramatically compared to other punctuation marks. Look at the rules of em dash usage and the examples we provide below to help you provide emphasis and meaning to your writing. 

Em dashes [—] set apart parenthetical phrases or clauses in a sentence. It is longer than an en dash and three times as long as a hyphen and works similar to commas and parentheses. The em dash creates more emphasis and brings attention to the words it offsets.

Rule #1

Use an em dash to indicate where a dramatic interrupting idea, summary statement, or abrupt change of thought occurs. Words such as these, this, that, or all often begin a summary sentence when preceded by a dash. 

To set off interrupting ideas dramatically:The movie — only the greatest ever made! — was released back into theatres for an extra three-week viewing. 
To introduce the start of a summary statement:I was deciding whether to travel cross country by car or train or book plane tickets — that took days to determine which was the best cost for our family. 
To show an abrupt change of thought:I cannot believe how dramatic she has been lately — I can’t even deal with it right now!

Rule #2

Em dashes can ‌set off a nonessential appositive if it is long, when it is already internally punctuated, or when you want to add emphasis or drama. 

Due to length:The teacher — a 20-year veteran of the classroom concerned about the shape of current education — began offering an alternative course based on student accountability. 
When internal punctuation already exists:Some ‌students in the class — for example, an athlete, artist, and musician — served as an example of good time management. 
To add a strong emphasis:The class — not initially expected to be popular — had students from all four grade levels enrolled by the end of the first day!

Rule #3

Em dashes can ‌set off a nonessential modifier when already internally punctuated or if you want to add emphasis or drama. 

When internal punctuation already exists:The students — because they cared about their education, responsibilities, and future careers even when others doubted them — surprised everyone when they saw the value in the class.  
To add a strong emphasis:The class has grown through the years — allowing for incredible growth opportunities and expansion into other school districts — making it the success story of the community.  

Rule #4

Em dashes can ‌set off a parenthetical expression if it is long or already internally punctuated, or if you want to add emphasis and drama to the sentence. This use allows you to make it stand out from the rest of the sentence, or highlight questions and exclamations. 

However, short parenthetical expressions should not use the em dashes, as this takes away from the original statement. 

Due to length or existing parenthetical punctuation:I started planning for our summer vacation in February — it takes time to prepare the route, hotels, and different activities new to my children — since we want to have enough time to save money. 
If the parentheses include an exclamation or question mark:Our road trip to Florida — we love to drive to see all the sights on the way! — took three days to complete. 
To emphasize or add drama:Our first stop on the trip — after an especially harrowing and stressful experience with a thunderstorm — was a welcome rest.

Rule #5

When listing information, you may use the em dash between the list and independent clause when the list comes first. If the list follows the independent clause, it is best to use a colon instead. 

For Example:

  • Weeding, planting, and watering — that’s all we did this weekend to clean up the garden. 

How Do You Make an Em Dash?

The em dash is often forgotten as a punctuation mark since it isn’t located on a keyboard. Luckily, there are many keyboard shortcuts and different platform options to take advantage of this versatile option. 

Em Dash In Windows

Hold down the Alt key and type 0 + 1 + 5 + 1, then release the Alt key.

OR

Access the emoji keyboard, and press the Win + . (period) key combination. Select the symbols menu at the top, and near the bottom of the emoji keyboard, you’ll see the em dash (longer choice).

Em Dash In Mac

Press Option + Shift + – (also known as minus) to create an em dash.

Em Dash On a Chromebook

Press Ctrl + Shift + U, let go, then type 2 + 0 + 1 + 4 and press Space.

Em Dash In Microsoft Word

When you type two hyphens (- + -) in Word, it defaults to an em dash. 

OR

Go to the menu bar, click “Insert,” and select “Symbol,” then “More Symbols.” The em dash is on the second row.

OR

Type Ctrl + Alt + – to insert an em dash at the cursor location.

Em Dash In Google Docs

Place your cursor where you want the em dash, and go to Insert and click on Special Characters. Search em dash to insert it at the cursor.

Em Dash vs. En Dash vs. Hyphen

A, a hyphen (-) is the shortest “dash” and connects two words. An en dash (–), the second-longest “dash,” shows when a range of things in writing are related to one another. An em dash (—), the longest “dash,” is used as a substitute for a comma, colon, semi-colon, or parentheses.

For more detailed examples of their uses, check out our article comparing all three

How to Use Em Dashes in a Sentence 

To further see em dashes at work, we’ve compiled examples in various situations published across a wide range of viewership. This is an excellent punctuation mark to emphasize the information you want to stand out in writing. 

Steely Dan’s title track to FM—a justly forgotten, Robert Altman-inspired 1978 comedy that tries to pass off Foreigner, Foghat, and REO Speedwagon as paragons of rock rebellion—initially sounds like an extension of that movie’s middle-of-the-road sounds. [AV Club]

Since 2007, the consensus of the economic establishment—bankers, policymakers, CEOs, stock analysts, pundits—has been catastrophically wrong. [Slate]

Both Dagan and Diskin oppose military action against Iran unless all other options—primarily international diplomatic pressure and perhaps sabotage—have been exhausted. [Guardian]

The president’s nephews—sons of his late brother—include Amar, the deputy director for national security … [New York Times]

HOWARD:  …  She’s totally unapologetic, she’s— CHEW-BOSE: She’s everything. [Interview Magazine]

The all-renewable energy sector is 30 years away — and always will be. [Salon]

It’s that time of year again—time for New Year’s Resolutions! [Pegasus Books]

Let’s Review

The em dash is perhaps one of the most underrated punctuation marks due to its lack of easy-to-find keyboard application. But, this long dash is a dramatic option that highlights details and information you want the reader to pay attention to in your writing.

Writers love to use it in place of commas, colons, and parentheses where appropriate to add an emphasis and variety using a keyboard shortcut. It is often informal, but it is popular for blog writing and articles to help draw a reader in. 

7 thoughts on “Em Dash Usage and Examples”

  1. Don’t you think the use of a single hyphen instead of an en and em-dash on blogs has something to do with the writing interface found on these free blog-sites? I remember, some of them do not work like MSword, where two hyphens would automatically be converted to an en-dash. So, I think that maybe most bloggers find it awkward to see a double hyphen, like–this, or a triple hyphen, like—this, to represent the most common dashes. Looking at it this way, they are probably trying to emphasize the hyphen by surrounding it with spaces in order to indicate that it is either an en or em-dash depending on the context. Of course, it’s just a guess. Interesting, though.

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  2. The problem with the simplistic rules of using an em dash or en dash as presented here is that on a computer screen the dash may randomly appear at the end or start of a line, depending on how lines wrap as the text is edited, or the width of the browser window when the text is presented on the Web. Professional typesetters avoid putting dashes at the start of a line, as it disrupts rapid reading and comprehension of text. While most word processors and Web browsers that I’ve encountered over the last decade will break a line of text after an hyphen, they generally don’t respect that rule for em dashes and en dashes.

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  3. Thanks for the comprehensive explanation. May I ask if the following usage is correct ?

    Globalisation has given each country a free rein in focusing its comparative advantage – industries which a country has strength in – to maximize profit.

    Reply
    • Many thanks. I’ve been struggling with this issue for years now. Seriously. Between this article and your reply, I think I may finally be able to stop going back over hundreds of pages and repeatedly changing the mechanics of usage for the em dash. Having learned to type in the ’60’s on an IBM Selectric, however, I don’t believe I’ll ever stop double-spacing between sentences. These days, it’s as instinctual as breathing.

      Reply

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