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Slice of Life 9: Em-dash, how I love thee

I love the em-dash—there’s no other punctuation mark quite like it.

I think if you searched all of my work here and throughout most of my adult writing life, you wouldn’t be able to find a single piece of writing without the em-dash.

Maybe I love the em-dash for its style—its simple, clean line. The em-dash is elegant yet bold.

I don’t know when I first started using the em-dash. I don’t think I used em-dashes at all when I was in college, and most definitely not in high school. My guess is that somewhere in my teaching life, somewhere in a lesson on punctuation, I first really noticed the em-dash—and I fell in love.

At some point during the school year, I share my love for the em-dash with my students. It usually comes up during an either planned or impromptu conversation about our favorite punctuation marks. “What’s your favorite punctuation mark?” I ask. Before they can answer (or process the weirdness of that question), I jump in with an effusiveness that’s a bit shameful—”Mine’s the em-dash!” Most of my students think I’m a little crazy. They laugh awkwardly, a little embarrassed for me. I’m like the oddball chemistry teacher who has a favorite element. But I like to think there are some students—even if it’s just one—who understand, who get it. I look for those kindred spirits.

I find that students are often unsure of the em-dash’s purpose. “Is it like a comma? A semi-colon? A colon? What is it?” they ask. It’s a little bit of everything, I tell them, which is what makes it one of the more versatile pieces of punctuation available.

Unlike its close cousin, the en-dash, the em-dash’s longer, sleek line conveys both grace and power. The en-dash may “connect things that are related to each other by distance, as in the May–September,” but the em-dash connects and clarifies ideas. Noah Lukeman, in A Dash of Style, calls the em-dash the “interruptor.” But I think it’s more than that. The em-dash can function in the same ways as the humble comma, understated colon, and (oft) misunderstood semi-colon—yet it also elevates each.

Consider, for example, the sentences I wrote below. I often use these to teach the em-dash to my students:

With commas,

In the end, the true magic of Harry Potter isn’t made up of house-elves, horcruxes, Invisibility cloaks, hippogriffs, or even the Sword of Gryffindor. No, the true magic of the Harry Potter world is the simplest and oldest kind of magic, love.

But using the em-dash—

In the end, the true magic of Harry Potter isn’t made up of house-elves, horcruxes, Invisibility cloaks, hippogriffs, or even the Sword of Gryffindor. No, the true magic of the Harry Potter world is the simplest and oldest of its kindlove.

I also love how you can use the em-dash to take a breath in the middle of a sentence. Em-dashes give a writer the space to venture—a place for a thought to meander a bit—before coming back home. Like here:

In the end, it wasn’t the Unbeatable Wand that he needed to bring him happinessHarry, in fact, gives that back to Dumbledoreit was a family. Harry got his happy ending.

And here:

In Dumbledore, we get the quintessential teacher and father figure. Few of our teachers and for some of us, even our fatherswill ever live up to our imagined versions of Dumbledore in all his wisdom.

And aside from the em-dash, I also love Harry Potter—in case you hadn’t noticed. 🙂

*** Side Note: I think sometimes people don’t use em-dashes because they’re not sure how to get them to appear properly. But I love the em-dash so much, I figured out all the shortcuts. In Word, it’s easy because Microsoft built in an autocorrect feature: you  simply type two hyphens back-to-back followed by a space. That said, if you’re in a different word processing platform—like on a blog site like WordPress—it’s a little more complicated. To get the em-dash in these cases, it’s Shift + Option + _ on a Mac, and Fn + Alt + 0151 on a PC.


slice of lifeThis post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.

Filed under: Blog, Slice of Life

About the Author

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English teacher, book nerd, photography enthusiast. And mom to three Jedi-in-training.

11 Comments

  1. lisa

    I LOVE this – too! I use it in all of my writing – but never did growing up. I like the line, ‘… is elegant yet bold.’ So TRUE! I just might write about my favorite punctuation – what a fun slice. : )

    Liked by 1 person

  2. OH MY GOSH, I LOVE THIS POST!

    I, too, love the em-dash–you can find me using the crap out of it in all my TTT posts. I can’t help myself.

    I also love the terrifically nerdy keyboard shortcuts segment of this post.

    Lastly, I will say that when I first learned the name of the em-dash, I immediately associated it with Emily Dickinson, because she makes you and I look like those people you just add a sprinkle of sugar into our coffees where she’s dumping the whole shaker into her cup!

    Bravo, em-dash!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the em-dash too! I remember distinctly when I learned how to use it correctly. It was 2000, and I was in the Summer Institute. One of my cohort mates had been an editor and schooled me in the difference between the en-dash and the em-dash. I have been happily using it for the past seventeen years.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I smiled all the way through this piece. It’s beautifully written and it’s also about my very favorite punctuation mark. I’m not sure you could find a single post on my blog that doesn’t feature the em-dash either. I can’t write without it!

    Liked by 1 person

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