Em Dashes En Dashes and Hyphens

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This lesson comes with a disclaimer: Wattpad is NOT em dash-en dash friendly. So, these em/en dashes may or may not be formatted correctly when you read this lesson. The proper formatting of an em dash is a long dash with no spaces on either side (—).

If you are using a Mac, the shortcut key for an em dash is Option+Shift+Hyphen. In most Windows programs, you can simply type 2 hyphens and an em dash will be substituted for you. (Word and Scrivener do this.)

Before we talk about em dashes, let's clear up their cousins: the en dash and the hyphen.


The en dash, which is a little shorter than the em dash, is primarily used for numbers and either opposing or related words.

The score was 82-27.

My favorite thing about the World Cup is the Brazil-Mexico rivalry.

Abortion is a popular Republican-Democrat argument.


The hyphen, which is shorter still, is the tiny dash used in compound words.

She wore a black t-shirt.

He works a part-time job.

Carol had chosen David for her future son-in-law the very first time they met.


The em dash is much more versatile! It can replace commas, colons, and parentheses! This is another one of those punctuation marks that should be used sparingly. It is used to create emphasis or draw the attention of the reader.

Replacing Commas

In all of these instances, the em dash is used in place of commas to provide more emphasis.

I miss having someone-anyone-to talk to.

"And this day"-she placed her palms on his chest-"is certainly a reason to celebrate."

It was an honest smile-a grateful one.

Replacing Colons

You can use an em dash to replace a colon when you want to emphasize the ending of a sentence.

Ice cream, an ocean breeze, a beautiful woman-he was sure this was Heaven.

She gave her answer-no.

Replacing Parentheses

Here are the same sentences, one with parentheses and the other with em dashes. Most editors will tell you that parentheses should be avoided in fiction writing. You could also use parenthetical commas here, but the em dash provides more emphasis.

It's obvious to everyone (except the two of you) that you're in love with each other.

It's obvious to everyone-except the two of you-that you're in love with each other.

Rebecca Ashburn (David's ex from high school) was walking to her tiny, blue sports car.

Rebecca Ashburn-David's ex from high school-was walking to her tiny, blue sports car.


This lesson is for @BirdofaWing who asked about the difference between semicolons and em dashes. I hope this cleared things up for you! The bottom line is semicolons and em dashes are not interchangeable. They have very different purposes.

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