An Ode to Em Dashes

EmDashI’d like to take a moment—if I may—to momentarily toss common grammar tools out the window (you know the ones I’m talking about: periods, commas, semi-colons, etc.). Instead, allow me to take this moment to open your eyes to a beautiful grammatical pearl writers like to call the em dash. Depending on its use, this little line offers writers the opportunity to emphasize, mute, interject, list, or even omit information in an elegant manner.

At some point in everyone’s writing career, they feel the need to add details that spice up their work, but don’t necessarily have a place in their paragraph or sentence structure. So often, we turn to commas, parentheses, and semi-colons to get this message across; however, what we tend to neglect is the em dash—a form of punctuation that is able to smoothly interject commentary into any passage.

I know, I know. You won’t believe the power of the em dash until you see it, right? Well, let me show you just what it can do with two simple examples.

Example 1: Eyes burning with passion, or, perhaps, a lustful flame, he stared in her direction with the hope of mesmerizing her with his gaze.

Okay, the sentence is fine, but let’s face it, the commas make it clunky and force you to pause after nearly every word. Why make such a saucy sentence so stop-and-go?

Example 2: Eyes burning with passion—or, perhaps, a lustful flame—he stared in her direction with the hope of mesmerizing her with his gaze.

Notice how the second sentence has a certain flow that the first did not. The use of the em dashes interjects a separate thought in the middle of sentence without taking away from the integrity of it.

Em dashes save writers from making sentences awkward or cluttered with punctuation. More casual than colons and smoother than parentheses, em dashes take your work to the next level. So, flaunt the em dash, use it wisely, decorate your essays—or, your home—with them, tell everyone you discovered you have a new superpower, spice up your life.

“Mm, what’s that flavor?they will ask.

“Oh, just a pinch of em dash,” you’ll respond smugly


KC EsperKC Esper is JCU junior English major, concentrating on a professional writing track. She is also a Spanish and philosophy double minor. KC is a first-year staff member at the Writing Center.

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