The Em Dash

Often, I like to use Skill Building Sundays to teach a concept or skill that I do not have time to teach within our limited class time…

This past month we have focused on punctuation – conjunction, semi-colon, colon, comma – but we have not focused on the Em Dash.  (Note the previous sentence; this is an example of em dash usage.)   

Below is an excerpt from a blog written by Dr. Nancy Tuten, founder of Get it Write, an online training company.  On her homepage, she writes that her company focuses on people “who realize that the written word makes a powerful and lasting impression.”  These words highlight a key focus of this Skill Building class: not only to train for the SAT and ACT but also to learn how to make our writing impactful, filled with sentence variety.  The Em Dash – if used sporadically within an essay – stands out and highlights key points within our writing.

*NOTE:   On the SAT/ACT the em dash is used to “sandwich” a phrase.  Thus, 95% of the time an em dash will only be the correct answer IF there is another em dash within the sentence. Also, most of the time an em dash is what I call a “strong comma.”   Rule to follow: dashes are “married” to dashes and commas are “married” to commas, meaning that you can’t sandwich a phrase with a comma and a dash!   

  • Susan, a great girl – went to the store. = NO
  • Susan, a great girl, went to the store. = yes
  • Susan – a great girl – went to the store. = yes

After reading about the em dash, I recommend the following New York Times article: The Em Dash Divides. Why do people care so much about a piece of– no offense – punctuation?

The Em Dash by Dr. Nancy Tuten

When we hear the term dash, most of us picture the em dash. It is significantly longer than the hyphen.

We use the em dash to create a strong break in the structure of a sentence. We can use these dashes in pairs, as we would use parentheses—that is, to enclose a word, or a phrase, or a clause (as we’ve done here)—or they can be used alone to detach one end of a sentence from its main body.

Dashes are particularly useful in a sentence that is long and complex or in one that contains a number of commas, as in this example:

  • We bought markers, paper, pens, and tablets—all of which were on sale, of course—for our clients to use in the courtroom.

If we confuse the em dash with the hyphen, we make a sentence virtually impossible to read. If we had used a hyphen in place of each dash two sentences ago, it would seem as though we had hyphenated two pairs of words in the sentence: “tablets-all” and “course-for,” neither of which makes any sense.

Em Dashes, Parentheses, or Commas?

A good rule of thumb is to reserve em dashes for those places where the comma simply doesn’t provide a strong enough break. If a comma (or a pair of them) works, use it.

Parentheses tend to downplay an idea; they suggest that the information in them is helpful but not necessary. Em dashes draw attention to the information they enclose or set apart. Typically the writer is telling the reader that the information being set off by em dashes is important.

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