10 December 2023
4 mins read

The church of the em dash

Grammar's most versatile punctuation mark

Shashwat TheTrio

As some of you might know, I love to read. I read a lot of books(mostly fiction), articles, blog posts, and what have you. Heck, I often binge-read Wikipedia. In doing that, I’ve formed a style of writing that I prefer — not only to read but also to write. Give me a book that has third-person limited narration, a lot of inner monologues, and flowery prose and I’ll be hooked.

But writing is not just about the words that you use. It’s about the way you use them — and most importantly — how you string them together — Punctuation. I’ve often felt that punctuation is an underappreciated part of writing. It’s not just about the rules — it’s about the rhythm.

And the em dash is the one which rules them all.

Ok but what is an em dash?

Firstly, here’s what it looks like: . Notice how it’s longer than a hyphen(-). It’s called so because it’s the width of the capital letter ‘M’.

But what’s more important is how it’s used. It’s used to indicate a break in thought or a pause in speech — similar to a comma or a colon. But it’s more than just those two — it can even be used in pairs to indicate a parenthetical statement. It’s also used to indicate a sudden change in thought or tone.

Suffice it to say, it’s a multitude of punctuation marks rolled into one.

Shut up already and show me some examples

Here are some examples of the em dash in action. I have taken these examples from TheWritePractice and Merriam-Webster.

And the wide range of its hours of operation — 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.— certainly showed concern for customers’ manifold circumstances.

Andy scanned the budgets on his desk, noting that Margot’s handwriting — and most of her work, in fact — was less than satisfactory.

And my favorite use of it — as an aside, an act of breaking the fourth wall so to speak:

While you may choose more than one value — perhaps a value for a subplot or the internal genre — if you try to move your story on too many values it will become muddied and will be very hard to work with in your second draft.

Why do I love it so much?

If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you’ll notice that I use the em dash a lot. Well, that’s not actually true. I used the hyphen(-) a lot. That’s because until recently, I wasn’t aware of the em dash. But that just proves my point — even without reading about it anywhere, I was using it instinctively. If that’s not a sign of a good punctuation mark, I don’t know what is.

But now that I’m finally enlightened, I’m going to do what any evangelist would do — spread the word.

But that still doesn’t answer the question — why do I love it so much? I think the main reason is that it’s very simple yet effective. I don’t know why, but just reading an article littered with semi-colons and colons makes me feel like I’m reading a research paper. I’m not saying that they’re bad — they have their uses — but they feel a bit too formal for my taste. The em dash, on the other hand, is very informal. It’s like a friend who’s telling you a story — and that’s the kind of writing I like.

It also suits my writing style. If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you know this — I write as if I’m talking to you. And that’s because, in some ways, I am. As soon as I start having an aside or go off on a tangent — which I do a lot, this included — I use the em dash. It’s like a pause in the current speech — a break in thought — to be resumed later. You can kind of — but not really — do this with a comma or parentheses, but they look ugly so here we are.

And that’s why I love it so much.

Why should I care?

Because it’s awesome and anyone who says otherwise is wrong.

The Problem

The reason so few people know about the em dash is because it’s not present on most keyboards. You can use the hyphen(-) instead, but it doesn’t look as good. You can also use two hyphens(--) instead, but that’s just ugly. You can also use the en dash(), but that’s just wrong.

The way to type it depends on the operating system you’re using. On macOS, you can use the shortcut Option + Shift + -. Typing it on Windows is a bit more involved. You can read about it here


Now that you know about the em dash, the next step is simple — repeat after me:

Em dash on the page,

Silent pause in language’s dance —

Words linger, entranced.

Congratulations, you’re now a member of the church of the em dash! Go forth and spread the word!