Upon sharing last week’s semicolon post I was asked about the proper use of em dashes.
Truth be told, I’m probably the worst person to ask about em dashes because I love em dashes—to the point where I may overuse them.
So this Writing Wednesday is just as much for me as it is for the six other people who read this series. (Hey, guys.)
Naturally, I turned to Google and GREAT NEWS: According to the very first result “the em dash is perhaps the most versatile punctuation mark.”
My odds of misusing it just shrunk tenfold.
Turns out the em dash can replace commas, parentheses and colons! It just depends on the effect you’re going for.
But they also serve a very different purpose than en dashes and hyphens, which I’ll make sure to cover some other time.
On to the uses!
The biggest reason you’d use em dashes in place of commas would be to improve readability, but keep in mind they’re much more emphatic.
I’m trying to explain to Charlie, the younger, rowdier pup, why he can’t go outside every time he hears a neighbor dog bark.
I’m trying to explain to Charlie—the younger, rowdier pup—why he can’t go outside every time he hears a neighbor dog bark.
With the emphasis provided by those em dashes, the reader can deduce that Charlie’s young, rowdy ways make my attempts to explain the situation quite difficult.
And how much nicer is it to have one comma as opposed to three?
Using a pair of em dashes in place of parentheses isn’t much different, but instead of improving readability, you’re showing that the offset phrase is closely related to the main clause.
My new boots (classic L.L. Beans with shearling lining) worked well in today’s frigid temps.
My new boots—classic L.L. Beans with shearling lining—worked well in today’s frigid temps.
With the parentheses it seems I’m simply answering the unspoken question of what are these new boots? With little regard to why they worked so well.
Whereas with the em dash you get the sense that because they’re L.L. Beans, they saved my toes from poor circulation and loss of feeling.
Happens more often than you’d think.
That said, let’s get to my personal favorite: Using the em dash in place of a colon.
If you thought these bad boys applied emphasis in the first two examples, consider the occasions on which you’d use a colon. Already pretty emphatic, right?
As the other car continued sliding forward with little help from any of its tires, I realized only one thing would eventually stop it: me.
As the other car continued sliding forward with little help from any of its tires, I realized only one thing would eventually stop it—me.
Not only does the em dash (again) add serious drama, it’s also less formal than that stuffy double dot.
Two concepts I can get behind.
Really, there’s not a ton of explaining to be done when it comes to using em dashes, just be sure not to overuse them. Ask yourself how much oomph you wanna add and act accordingly.
Oh, and apparently you’re not supposed to put spaces around them? Which I didn’t know until now. But if you prefer spaces, that’s cool too! Newspapers do it all the time.
Now go forth and punctuate to your heart’s content.
Title Credit: Angels & Airwaves