What do you call this line (-), this line (–), and this line (—), and how do you use them?
Don’t know? Me neither!
I LOVE sentences. I love reading amazing sentences for the poetry and rhythm and knock out punch they can pack. I love writing sentences and the feeling of finally getting it to say exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it.
To do this, punctuation is key. I think I’ve always thought of punctuation as mere mechanics though—the rules between the words. I’ve thought of them as far inferior to the words themselves. Maybe they are. But they can help those words more than I realized.
Punctuation is essential for conveying nuances of dialogue and conversation, for creating emotional impact, suspense, tone, setting, etc., and for crafting a knock-out sentence.
So I ask myself: HOW CAN I NOT KNOW ALL THE WAYS TO USE AN EM-DASH?!
Before I answer that question, I will give you a partial answer to the quiz above. The baby one is a hyphen, the middle one is an en-dash, and the big long one is the em-dash. Don’t ask me what the first two do. One blog a time.
True or False:
The em dash is considered the most versatile of all the punctuation marks? TRUE!
The em dash can replace what other type of punctuation in a sentence:
d) all of the above. (Hint: it’s this one!!!!!!)
Em dashes are like the “O” blood type of the punctuation world. They are not interchangeable with these other punctuation marks however, so learning when and how to use them properly is key.
So, now that you’re sold on this marvel of modern usage, let’s see how to do it.
1) The em dash to set of a series is the most common usage, and the one that needs the least explanation.
EX: Of all the food she packed for lunch—fruit, cheese, salad, bread—she ate the
cheese the fastest.
2) The em dash in place of COMMAS can make a clunky and cluttered sentence more readable. Em dashes will also place more emphasis on the sequestered words or phrase.
EX: And yet, when she thought about what the cheese cost—nearly two dollars an
ounce—she decided she should have savored it more, leaving her regretting the
3) The em dash in place of PARENTHESES should be used when there are multiple commas inside the parenthetical. Again, em dashes will draw more attention to the content of what’s between them so if you want the addition to be subtle, keep the parentheses. Despite them being more emphatic, em dashes are less dramatic of a break in the sentence so they will maintain flow better. (If replacing a parenthetical at the end of a sentence, just use one em dash.)
EX: The next day for lunch—although she had even less time to eat, since there
was a meeting at 12:30—she took tiny bites, closed her eyes, and chewed slowly.
She decided the extravagance was worth it.
4) The em dash in place of a SEMI-COLON, COLON, or PERIOD functions more like a hard comma. Again, it’s less formal than a colon but draws more attention. Use it to generate strong emotion.
EX: She has, however, had to adjust her grocery list to meet her budget. But she doesn't really need toilet paper—she needs cheese.
Three other uses are more mechanics-y to me, so I’ll just note that em dash(es) can also be used 1) to indicate interruption of a speaker or disjointedness in speech; or 2) to replace unknown or censored letters or words.
I read recently that agents and editors are impressed with highly competent sentence structure and correct use of uncommon punctuation. I think knowing how to use em dashes will help make those pesky query letters and synopses easier to write since you’ll have more tricks at your disposal to craft the perfect sentence or three. Also, if you can demonstrate a mature use of punctuation in the query letter, that might make an agent/editor sit up and take notice and more likely to move onto the actual manuscript submission. Which of course will also have a sweet em dash or two.
But who cares about what agents and editors want? (Well, okay—me.) But despite that, think about what you want? Do you want to write killer sentences? I do! And the em-dash is how I’m going to do it!
Wait, let’s just calm down. Chocolate is great—in moderation. A well placed swear word—in adult conversation—can be incredibly effective for comedy or to express anger. But when you’re eating a diet of only chocolate and cursing every other word, neither are going to be appreciated much by you or anyone else. Some writers argue modern writing has gotten em dash crazy. These critics think the em dash should be used only when more common punctuation fails. I guess that makes sense. You don’t just go get someone else’s blood unless you really need it.
Warning headed. But I like sentence variety, exactness, and getting as much substance out of my structure as I can. I think it can only help writers to learn and master all types of punctuation marks, just in case we need or want to use them. To me, it feels like a brand new tool in my writer’s toolbox—and I can’t wait to use it.
How do you actually make one in a computer document?
Hit the “hyphen” twice and the next time you hit the space bar or return key, it will
morph into an em dash. (At least, that’s how to do it on mine!) Good luck!