The Em Dash and I—A Love Story

by James Scott Bell

Happy Valentine’s Day! Since love is in the air, I thought I’d write about my own passionate affair. Don’t worry. My wife knows all about it, and doesn’t mind, though she wonders at my ardent attachment. “It’s just a punctuation mark,” she says.

“Not just any!” say I. “It’s the most versatile of the lot. It’s clean and strong. It clarifies and emphasizes without being boorish. Do not belittle my love of the em dash!”

Or something to that effect.

So yes, I confess. My heart is enraptured by the em.

Now, there are actually three types of dashes you need to know about. While technically not a “dash,” the hyphen is a line like the other two. It’s the shortest of the bunch because it is used only to connect words that have a combined meaning. Like: He’s a two-time champion.

A bit longer is the en dash. The main thing to know about the en is that it’s primarily used to join numbers, as in “The Dodgers beat the Reds, 3–2.” Or, “Robert Benchley (1889–1945) was an American humorist.” Many writers use a hyphen or an em dash for this, and shouldn’t.

By the way, the names en and em come from the days of movable type. An en dash was determined to be the approximate length of the typeface n. An em dash was the length of the m. (Frankly, I think it would have saved a lot of confusion if these dashes had been named Marge and Sylvia.)

Now, on to the star of my article, the em. It is a crisp, efficient dash used to set off a word or clause for emphasis or additional information. I use it instead of a parenthesis or a colon. (Those of you have who been longtime followers of TKZ know of my disdain for the semicolon in fiction. I am with Vonnegut on that score. “Here is a lesson in creative writing,” he wrote. “First rule: Do not use semicolons…All they do is show you’ve been to college.”)

(Astute readers will note that in the above paragraph, and this one, I use a parenthesis. That’s because, when it comes to punctuation, I draw a distinction between fiction and nonfiction. The parenthesis and semicolon are useful in nonfiction. I use them myself, just not in fiction.)

Actually, I may have used a parenthesis on occasion in my short fiction. Stephen King loves parentheses. He uses them as a device to get into the head of the viewpoint character or to drop in a little backstory. Here, for example, is a clip from one of his early short stories, “Children of the Corn.”

He stopped, looking directly into the corn. He found himself thinking (anything to untrack from those rags that were not rags) that it must have been a fantastically good growing season for corn.

And this:

His mind was elsewhere, listening to the dull buzz of a cicada burrowing into one of the nearby elms. He could smell corn, dusty roses, and fertilizer. For the first time they were off the turnpike and in a town. A town in a state he had never been in before (although he had flown over it from time to time in United Airlines 747s) and somehow it felt all wrong but all right.

Here’s one where King uses parenthesis and em dash both!

While she picked at the knots (her face was set in a peculiar way—expressionless but tight-mouthed—that Burt remembered his mother wearing when she pulled the innards out of the Sunday chicken), Burt turned on the radio again.

(Down in the comments, tell me what you think of King’s use of parentheses. It may help him sell more books.)

Sometimes I use the em dash instead of a comma. Here’s an example from Romeo’s Hammer:

So what about the lack of clothing? A love scene gone bad? Someone who had been with her while she was drinking—or drugging—herself? Her condition when I found her was such that she had to have come from one of the beach houses. Access to the sand is cut off all along PCH. She didn’t wander down from the street.

I used the em dash here because I wanted more emphasis on the word drugging than a comma setoff would create.

The other major use for the em dash is interruptions in dialogue. Please do not use ellipses for this! Those three dots are used for a voice trailing off by speaker’s choice.

“I don’t know, Stan, let me …”

Stan turned around. “Let you what?”

The em dash shows an interruption, which should immediately be followed by the other speaker’s words (or an action which cuts off the sentence, like a bullet through the heart). Again from Romeo’s Hammer:

“That’s a fine achievement,” I said. “You do know that kara is an ancient word that means to cleanse oneself of evil thoughts, and to be humbly receptive to peace and gentleness. Yes? You are therefore abusing your own discipline. That’s not a good way to—”

“Shut it!”

The em dash is also used for self-interruption:

“Slow down,” Jack said. “You’re driving too—stop! Look over there.”

In doing a little research, I was delighted to find that em dash love is so pervasive that it was even covered in the NY Times:

Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s “Comma Queen” and the author of “Between You and Me,” wrote in an email that the em dash “can be substituted for almost any other mark of punctuation — the comma, the semicolon, the colon, the period, a pair of parentheses, the quotation mark, even a bullet point in the making of a list.” Just don’t use more than two in a sentence, according to some experts.


[W]riter Laura van den Berg confessed in her own tweet that, “after years of resistance,” she had fallen “into headlong love with the em dash. I love the way it can create the feeling of a fractured/incomplete/interrupted line or thought.”

Technical notes:

Don’t put a space before or after the em dash. Only newspapers using the AP Stylebook do that, and only because columns of newsprint (remember newsprint?) are easier to justify with the spaces.

In Word for Mac, you make a hyphen by typing the hyphen key. (You’re welcome.)

En dash is option+hyphen.

Em dash is shift+option+hyphen. (Also, Word will convert two hyphens into an em automatically).

For PC users, things are a bit more involved. You may consult this article.

Okay, TKZers, over to you. Do you love the em dash? Is there another punctuation mark you’d like to send a Valentine to?

39 thoughts on “The Em Dash and I—A Love Story

  1. Great article. The em dash also causes a medium-length pause, which is why it isn’t interchangeble with the colon, for example, but IS interchangeable with the semicolon. And yes! Emphasis. The em dash calls attention to the parenthetical information contained between two em dashes, which puts it in direct opposition to the parens, which tend to quiet information contained between them and is easy to skip over completely.

  2. En dash. Hmm. Good to know.

    Dear Mr. King, parentheses are jarring. I’m never sure how important the information is inside. Is it something you didn’t want to say but have to? Can I skip it? I often do. Use the em dash, which calls out, “Hey, you need to know this!”

  3. Parentheses pull me right out of the story. I love me my em dashes. Didn’t know about en dashes being used with numbers, so thanks for that new piece of information.
    Happy Valentine’s Day to you, JSB, and everyone at TKZ.

  4. Jim, thanks for your Valentine’s Day gift–you clearly explained the difference between an em dash and en dash which, until today, I never grasped.

    I agree with Harvey and Nancy about parentheses. Just think how far Stephen King might have gone if he DIDN’T use them (she smirked). .

  5. Good morning, Jim. Thanks for a great Valentine’s Day post.

    I love Aunty Em. I see her as two doors opening up and letting the reader get a peek at something deeper, something behind the story, almost like a side bar in nonfiction. And if we’re going to keep our dialogue spicy, there will be interruptions. Perfect, Aunty Em is always ready to tell us to shut up. The one I didn’t know about was self interruption. Love it. I’ll add that to my quiver.

    So, Happy Valentine’s Day, Aunty Em!

  6. The 14th is a very important day. It’s Arizona Statehood Day, having become a state 109 years ago on February 14, 1912. Arizona is my true love affair. 😎

    Looking at the fiction example where King uses parentheses, I realize that 1) I don’t often see parenthesis used in fiction and 2) I’m glad that I don’t because I find it distracting.

    Thankfully, the em dash has the same effect as said in fiction–you see it but don’t really notice it and you just easily flow along with your reading.

  7. Fun post, Jim. Until today, I didn’t know there was a difference between a hyphen and an en dash.

    My favorite–and sometimes most effective (see how I did that?)–use of the em dash is to interrupt the narrative with action. Sometimes, a descriptive paragraph is necessary, but the reader already knows–

    Wait! Was that a squirrel?

  8. This was a fun read, Jim. I also didn’t know that there was a difference between a hyphen and an en dash. I do like to use the em dash in my fiction. As for parentheses, I’m with you–better suited for non-fiction than fiction. King pulled it off because he wrote at times in what seems to me to be an almost stream-of-consciousness style, but they can be very distracting.

    Happy Sunday!

  9. Parentheses in fiction–nay nay say I.

    Auntie Em–addiction’s a good word. My editor sometimes gently reminds me to lighten up with them.

    Uncle En–never heard of him before today. Always learn here.

    Happy Valentine’s Day, JSB, and y’all!

  10. I find that in fiction authors —and King is guilty of this— the use of parentheses seems to bequeath a license to prattle on for a bit too long within, to the degree that the reader can get lost in the sidetrack. I vote for using them sparingly and with as few words as possible.

    Thanks for another great and informative post, Jim (do I always say that…d’oh!).

  11. This brings to mind the mother who sued the local school district because no one there could pronounce her daughter’s name correctly.

    “Don’t none of them teachers know the name of punctuation marks?”

    Indeed they did. La-a was usually pronounced luh-ah by those first introduced to the unique spelling. The mother said the punctuation sign should be named, which would make it Lahyphena, right? But no, it was Ladasha. Mom should have studied up on correct usage before hanging that moniker on her or child.

    Thanks for the lesson, JSB, and happy Valentine’s Day to all!

  12. I always loved the em dash–but have been wondering lately if I could use it instead of a semicolon. Diving into my manuscript to replace all those temporary semicolons.

  13. Thanks for the lesson, Jim. I love the em dash—so powerful, so saucy, so commanding! (Parentheses on the other hand …)

    But I must say a word in favor of the lowly semicolon. As a consistent supporter of the underdog, I feel writers should help this oft-disparaged punctuation mark. It has its place; we should use it.

    (Btw, I don’t know where Mr. King is from, but the cicadas around here don’t make a “dull buzz.” Ours sound more like chain saws at work.)

    • The semicolon makes what should be conversational narrative in fiction a formal, nonfictional quality that is off-putting for most readers and makes the narrative clunky. So, in most cases, nope, not a good idea. If, however, you are writing dialog for a formal person, a semicolon is a good indicator of that person’s formality. Back in ancient times, I could mentally hear “semicolon” when a pedant jerk of an English professor used to talk. He was the inspiration for my villain in my first novel, and semicolons sprinkled his dialog. I enjoyed killing him.

      As far as two sentences without a conjunction, a comma is perfectly acceptable between two simple sentences in informal writing.

    • Back in college in the late Sixties, I helped run a number of events with famous poets talking about their art. One lady told a story of how she was in a nasty divorce with a jerk ex who wanted to prove she was an adultress so he wouldn’t have to pay her alimony. He hired a really bad PI to bug her phone, and the bug was really obvious. One day she and another poet spent over an hour discussing the placement of commas in his newest poem. The conversation was genuine, but she couldn’t help but smirk at her ex and that poor PI listening to this dull-ass conversation and trying to figure out how it was pillow talk.

  14. My heart turns to the wallflower, the one that no one knows or pays attention to. I speak of the vocative comma. It’s no longer taught in school because who writes dialogue in English class or the real world? Some copy editors of poor fame don’t even know it exists. Yet it does so much. It saves lives. It helps a sentence make sense. It tells the world this writer and his editor are idiots. Thank you, vocative comma, for all that you do. I love you.

  15. Thank you for the full explanations, Jim!
    I have an absolute addiction to Aunt Em!
    I like your suggestions of Sylvia & Marge, but the background explanation of typeface does render their distinct uses more memorable.
    And I am ridiculously excited to see your distinction between ellipses and em. Yes! Exactly! *banging fist on table* I’ve tried to explain this difference to non-writerly friends & beta readers and found myself as bereft as the poor fellow from the popular meme: wild-eyed, wild-haired, standing with arms spread over the intricate wall map of red thread and pins. Haha!
    As for parenthetical work, I always think of Ridley Scott’s work on Kingdom Heaven, the script which was so parenthetical that the rest of the film crew and actors could barely keep up.
    Some artists need an intervention, I think.

  16. I’m on team Emdash with you, Jim. I overuse them every chance I get and have to cut some in edits. Parenthesis (IMO) don’t have a place in fiction, but who the hell am I to tell Stephen King what to use. I do have a punctuation question for you and the Kill Zone gangsters, though. What are {[brackets]} for?

    • I know that squared brackets are used when the writer makes changes to a direct quote.

      “Grow old along with me, the best [part of our lives] is yet to be.”
      Robert Browning

    • [These brackets] show a missing word in a quote. Never used in fiction to my knowledge. Gotta use them in historical true crime where words are left out of court transcripts, newspapers, etc.

  17. Bravo! I’m also an EM-dash aficionado. My trusty CMoS has three pages on the EM. Also with you on the “no parens for fiction” thing. I just searched my latest published book, and one lonely paren pair slipped in.

    BTW, the markup symbol for the EM I’ve always used (for hand-marking a manuscript) is: 1/M (with the slash being a horizontal dash).

  18. I love the em dash. I remember first noticing a lot as a kid in Ray Bradbury’s stories. I immediately threw it in my toolbox.

  19. Love, love the EM. It’s about the most perfect piece of punctuation I’ve found. No parens in fiction – yuck! The occasional semicolon, but never in dialogue. When I’m editing for clients, I slash them with my red knife.

  20. Before this — my first official lesson in “horizontal” punctuation — I’ve tended to use ‘em all semi–unconsciously correctly, partly because my graphics background likes the compositional way they look on the page. Now my OCD will make sure I use ‘em grammatically compositionally as nature intended.

    I am assuming, though, that it’s an en dash when a word is broken at the end of a line and continued at the beginning of the next. Word and e–mail tend to auto–wrap, so I’m showing my typewriter age here…

    (…and the trivia geek wordsmith in me loves the reason behind the naming of the longer two.)

    • “I am assuming, though, that it’s an en dash when a word is broken at the end of a line and continued at the beginning of the next. ”

      No, that’s a normal hyphen (shortest dash), as with sentence justification. An EN dash is primarily used to indicate “to”. (or “to.” 😉

  21. I knew about the em dash explanation of use from reading your book, PLOTMAN TO THE RESCUE, page 79. Great reading.

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