An em dash is a dash with a width of one em. In typewritten texts, the em dash is composed of two hyphens with no surrounding spaces. The em dash is used to enclose and separate.

Enclosing dashes, like enclosing commas, dashes need partners. The dashes can be used as to replace enlcosing commas and add emphasis. Dashes also come in handy when commas might make a parenthetical appear as a serial list. For example, the sentence

"Your sister, Sarah, and I went wild last night."

looks like I engaged in a three-way with your sister and someone named Sarah, whereas

"Your sister--Sarah--and I went wild last night."

shows that I'm just letting you know which one of your sisters went wild with me last night.

Enclosing dashes should also be used

  • for clarity when the enclosed element contains internal commas
  • when the enclosed element is itself a complete sentence
  • to emphasize the enclosed element.

The dash can also be used where one might otherwise see a colon--in an explanatory statement. These separating dashes are also used to spearate two clauses when the second amplifies or restates the first. A semicolon could also be used in this situation, but a dash adds further emphasis.

Please note that in this writeup, everywhere I use the unqualified term "dash," I really mean "em dash."

Life wasn't half as fun before I discovered the em dash!”
–strawberry, April 2001

Hi there, I'm strawberry, first time caller longtime listener...
I originally learned about the em dash from the lovely and talented Robin Williams, god bless her. No, not that Robin Williams. This one is the author of several top-notch computer and type-oriented books such as The Mac is not a Typewriter — and to my knowledge she has never shared a stage with Pam Dawber.

For someone like me, whose thought process can meander at the slightest hint of a

man, some toast would sure be the business right now...
oh yeah, toast...
no wait... English muffins!
What was I thinking? Toast!
Oh jeez, do I actually
own any marmalade though?
Wait, what's this on my monitor?
Is that E2?
Well this node seems a little sub-par.. look at the way they...
Oh crap!

distruption, the em dash is great. It lets you insert something quickly, making the printed word more like speech.

You can use an em dash to suggest a sudden realization or jump in thought such as...

"So," he said, the crumpled Lik-A-Stick package under the heel of his boot, "it now seems that the game is ove — good lord, I suddenly get that joke that Melissa told during summer camp!"

You can use an em dash to simulate an aside; almost like you're talking to a bunch of friends and you have to step back for a second to explain something to the person who came late:

"Let's all go down to the wharf first — 'cause that's where you get the best chutney — and then we can talk Flintstones trivia back at Susan's."
Why, you could probably even use an em dash to spice up the holiday punch at that boring company Christmas party:

"My god," spouted Eric, "did you see who Teddy had the gall to bring?"

"And did you see what she was almost wearing?"
Samantha replied.

"Hey," barked Thomas, "would you two ninnies shut up a sec? Have you had any of this punch; it's great! Normally I'm not the big Ocean Spray maven, but look... someone printed out thousands of tiny em dashes, cut them up like confetti, and mixed them in with the punch."

Okay, even I will admit, that may have been a little too "Theatre of the Mind", but you only live once right? Right? Right? "Are you there God? It's me, Margaret." (my first Judy Blume reference!)

To create your very own lovely looking em dash (like this "—") on a web page, there's no need to send a self addressed stamped envelope, don't bother with the tops of specially marked boxes... just use "—" or "—" (minus the quotes of course).

And now, if we could all take a moment for some quiet reflection, it's time for

"strawberry's extree-special 'Celebrate the Anal Among Us' moment"

Did you see the way I italicized almost all of that faux-thought-process text up near the top? Did you notice how I un-italicized the word "own" to make it just jump right out at'cha? Eerie isn't it? You know, in this happity-flappity little world of ours a of lot people cop out — they say "Don't sweat the small things". I'm all about the small things. I sweat the small things profusely.

"In the land of the italicized, the non-italicized word is the king."

So use the em dash.
Use it for good, but never for evil.
For The Superfriends, yet never the Legion of Doom.
For your uncle, but not thy neighbors zinnias.

For with the em dash comes great power, but also great responsibility. For, although they walk down stairs alone or in pairs, not everyone loves the em dash — at least not in the biblical sense.

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