What is an Em Dash? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

Em dashes are punctuation marks that are useful when a writer wants to emphasize a particular phrase within a sentence. They can also be used to indicate an interruption in thought or conversation. Em dashes are easy to identify and use.

What Is an Em Dash?

An em dash is created in most word processing programs when the user types two hyphens. The hyphen keys are typically located next to the zero key on a computer keyboard.

How Is an Em Dash Used?

Em Dash

Em dashes have four distinct purposes. First, a pair of em dashes can replace a pair of commas.

This substitution should be used to emphasize the words enclosed in the em dashes. In the example below, notice the difference in emphasis when a em dashes replace the commas.

  • When Susan finally received her final grades, months after the semester had ended, she realized the registrar had transposed the numbers in her zip code.
  • When Susan finally received her final grades--months after the semester had ended--she realized the registrar had transposed the numbers in her zip code.

Em dashes can also replace parentheses within a sentence. Again, the em dashes will emphasize the parenthetical information. Look at the way Henry David Thoreau uses em dashes in the example below.

  • 'I meet this American government, or its representative, the state government, directly, and face to face, once a year--no more--in the person of its tax gatherer.'

Em dashes can also serve as a substitute for a colon, as in the following example.

  • The movieplex is showing three classic Hitchcock movies--North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Rear Window.

Finally, em dashes can be used to show interrupted thought or dialogue. The following sentence exemplifies this usage.

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