The em dash is a flexible bit of punctuation—and one of my favorites. You can use it in place of other punctuation. Ben Yagoda, author and professor of English at the University of Delaware, said in an opinion piece in The New York Times, “The Parenthetical Dash can stand in for a pair of commas or parentheses. The Pause Dash can take the place of a period, comma, semicolon—or nothing at all!”
Be careful not to confuse an em dash (—) with the shorter en dash (–) or the even shorter hyphen (-). The em dash is the width of an M. You’ll likely see the em dash written without spaces on either side—however, in newspapers (many of which follow The Associated Press Stylebook) do add spaces around the em dash.
Though it is flexible, it’s not a one-to-one replacement for other punctuation marks—much like how substituting a synonym for one word may change the tone of your writing. An em dash does add more emphasis than a comma or a pair of parentheses. It can also be interpreted as a little less formal.
However, it is a wonderful tool to change up the rhythm of your writing. “Writers who deploy this mark comfortably and adeptly (rather than haphazardly) are conscious of the rhythm and dynamics of a sentence. A well-placed dash adds energy and voice,” said Yagoda. And he is absolutely right! Keep in mind, though, a misplaced—or an overused—em dash can turn a what-could-be wonderful piece into a disjointed mess.
The Punctuation Guide shows you how you can use the em dash in your writing. Try adding this mark to your writing repertoire of punctuation. Feel free to contact me via email, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn, and let me know what your favorite punctuation is.
All the best,