I’m a blog writer and I have a confession—I’m addicted to the em dash.
Sometimes, I use one when a comma or semicolon would suffice. Other times, I make a sentence much longer than it should be by adding my favorite punctuation mark.
In fact, I have fought the urge to use three so far in this paragraph! Blog writers need a number of grammatical weapons in their arsenal and the em dash is a good one—if it’s not overused. (Oops!) Read on to learn more about what exactly the em dash is and when it is appropriate to use them as you write.
Creating the Em Dash
There is not an em dash key on the keyboard. For most cases, two hyphens typed together with no space is a sufficient substitute. However, you can create one with an alt code by holding down the ALT key while typing 0151 or Microsoft Word will create one automatically when you use two hyphens between two words with no space.
What is the Em Dash
The proper use of the em dash is a topic of great debate in the writing community. For reference, The University of Maryland Writing Center provides the following information about the em dash.
“The em dash consists of a longer line, which is the length of the letter m. There are no spaces before or after the em dash. These dashes are used to indicate a break in the continuity of a sentence. Since emphasis is placed on the material after or inside the em dashes, it is best not to overuse them.”
Put simply, the em dash is a stronger form of break in thought than using simple commas. In many cases, but not always, an em dash can be used when parenthesis would also be appropriate.
When to Use the Em Dash
A common rule of thumb, mentioned in many style guides, is that the em dash should be used seldom, if ever, in formal writing. In informal writing it is generally up to the writer when to use the em dash. Thinking of it as a “super comma” and using it when you feel that you need a bit bigger pause is a good way to decide when to use it. However, overusing it can make a piece of writing feel chopping and disjointed.
Once you start using the em dash, you may find that it’s a bit addictive. After all, the em dash lets us write in a more “stream-of-conscious” manner. Just take the time to review your work and make sure you didn’t go crazy. There are other ways to break up your content too—don’t leave out your friends the parentheses, semi-colon and the often maligned ellipsis!
Tracy S is a freelance writer and blogger who is writing her first book. When she’s not glued to the keyboard she has her eyes glued to a sci-fi book, her mind glued on her pool game or has glue on her hands while working on a home improvement project.