Writers love em dashes as much as hunters love Swiss army knives. It’s not difficult to understand why. Like the utilitarian knife, em dashes are unique, versatile tools. Once you find out about these handy dashes, you may fall in love with them too.

How Em Dashes Differ

Em dashes differ from other dashes not only in usage, which we will discuss shortly, but also in appearance. In fact, the em dash is named after its length—it’s about the same width as the capital letter M. Its alphabetical cousin, the en dash, is about the same width as the letter N. Figuratively speaking, the hyphen pulled the short end of the stick.


Em dashes save the day when other punctuation would be awkward. For instance, em dashes can replace parentheses at the end of a sentence or when multiple commas appear in a parenthetical phrase.

After a split second of hesitation, the second baseman leaped for the ball (or, rather, limped for it).

After a split second of hesitation, the second baseman leaped for the ball—or, rather, limped for it.

Colons enable a writer to introduce a clause that amplifies whatever came before the colon. They are more formal than dashes. However, em dashes are more emphatic than colons. When you want to generate strong emotion in your writing or create a more casual tone, use em dashes. Compare these sentences:

He is afraid of two things: spiders and senior prom.

He is afraid of two things—death and senior prom.

Writers and transcriptionists replace unknown, censored, or intentionally omitted letters with em dashes. In these cases, em dashes appear in pairs or threesomes.

A former employee of the accused company, ———, offered a statement off the record.

“H—— are all the same. They cause trouble wherever they go.”

Carved into the dresser drawer was a faded inscription: “Made for Kristina, by your de——ted sailor.”

Now you know a few of their capabilities. Em dashes add emphasis, replace unknown letters, and substitute for other punctuation marks. They really are as useful as the beloved Swiss Army knife! When will you add this punctuation wonder tool to your grammar toolbox?