Anaheim English Tutor Tip: How to Use an Em Dash


Tutors—especially English tutors—frequently see punctuation misunderstood and misused.

There are a few pieces of punctuation—semicolons, colons, and dashes—that are common culprits of causing these student mistakes (our private Anaheim English tutors are here to help you succeed).

We’ve previously discussed how to understand and use the semicolon and the colon, but we still have to discuss the dash—another important piece of punctuation.

Among students, the dash isn’t the most common in essays—in fact, it is seldom used at all.

Here, we will discuss some simple pointers about how to use the dash—specifically; we’ll talk about the em dash and its ability to make your sentences and paragraphs flow more naturally and convey information more effectively.

Like the piece on the colon and semicolon, we’ve started this post with a paragraph that includes the dash in every sentence.  While this is not the preferred way to incorporate any punctuation into your writing, it is a helpful way of using numerous examples to showcase the versatility of the punctuation.

In my experience, the dash is taught even less than the semicolon in K–12 English classes.  It is also likely the least used of the three punctuation marks discussed so far.  I personally find the em dash to be particularly effective in my writing, but I do recommend focusing on the colon and the semicolon first; they are more commonly seen in typical reading and also more easily incorporated into your writing.

If you’ve done that, let’s now go into detail with these four points about the em dash:

Don’t confuse with hyphens

This is a hyphen: –

This is an en dash: –

This is an em dash: —

Notice the difference in lengths.  “En” dash is named because it is the length of the capital letter N.  “Em” dash is named because it is the length of the longer capital letter M.  Note that both are longer than a hyphen.

Hyphens are used mainly for combining two words like “hard-working.”  En dashes are used for ranges, such as the K–12 in the paragraph above or like in April 2nd – March 3rd.

The “em dash” is the more versatile punctuation that we are talking about.  This is the longest of the three.  Mixing up the en dash and em dash likely will go unnoticed, but you should be particularly careful to not use a dash interchangeably with a hyphen.

Use it as more powerful parentheses

Parentheses can be used in the middle of a sentence to add supplementary information to the content of the sentence.  However, parentheses tend to diminish the importance of the content inside the parentheses.  It is treated as secondary as well as supplementary, and often readers will even ignore reading parentheses altogether and simply continue with the sentence.

The use of dashes can prevent this.  Using two dashes instead of parentheses is telling the reading that this supplement is important and should be emphasized.  You can see this usage in the first two sentences of the first paragraph of this article.

Use it as an easier semicolon

Using a semicolon is a way to connect two closely related sentences.  The caveat is that they both have to be complete sentences—not just an incomplete phrase like this.  With a dash, you are not constrained by this limitation.  You can connect two sentences that are both complete sentences, or you can connect a sentence with just a phrase or thought.

It is important to note that there is still a difference tonally between the dash and the semicolon.  Semicolons tend to show that the two sentences are a pair of equally significant, similar content.  Dashes are more often used to show a contrast or to present an interjection to the content of the first sentence.  You will get used to these nuances the more you practice using them.  You can see this usage in the final sentences of the first paragraph above.

Use it as the emphasis in a colon

The last tip is to use it similarly to how we can use a colon: for emphasis.  This is a very similar usage to how the colon is used.  The subtle difference is that the colon usually precedes a list of objects or a simple object.  You describe a category, then use a colon, then provide the item or items in that category.

With a dash you more often see this done in reverse.  For example, look at the third sentence in the first paragraph of this article.  Here, we wrote, “… but we still have to discuss the dash—another important piece of punctuation.”

If we were using a colon, we likely would have written “… but we still have to discuss another important piece of punctuation: the dash.”  Notice the difference?

The dash has more subtle nuances to it than many other pieces of punctuation.  It also has a lot of versatility in how you use it.  Here, we’ve presented some of its uses in a simpler way for beginners.  Other rules for the dash, such as making sure to have the proper length em dash and to not use spacing before or after it, are technically grammatically true but practically they are not well followed.  In modern usage, we often see a space before and after the em dash.  We also often see the en dash length used instead.

These are not aspects you should worry about as you try to incorporate it into your writing.  First, learn how to properly use punctuation like the semicolon, colon, and parentheses.  When you’ve mastered these three, you can begin to use the dash in similar ways to improve your writing even more.

Michael C. is currently a private math, science, and standardized test tutor with TutorNerds in Irvine and Anaheim.

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