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September 30, 2010

Computer Editing Tip: Em Dashes

Timothy.mcadoo by Timothy McAdoo

APA Style recommends specific uses for hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes. Last week we discussed en dashes. Today we focus on em dashes.

First, when would you use an em dash? The Publication Manual (p. 97) notes that em dashes are “used to set off an element added to amplify or to digress from the main clause.” The em dash draws a reader’s attention, partly because of the physical separation that the longer dash creates and partly because these dashes appear less frequently than hyphens and en dashes. The novelty of the em dash makes it perfect for text that you want to stand out.

An em dash might set off a phrase at the end of a sentence—like this one. Or, em dashes may set off a phrase midsentence—a technique that really draws a reader’s attention—as they do in this sentence. The text between the dashes is typically a digression or outright interruption of the main idea of the sentence. When used with care, this technique can really punctuate your point (pun intended)!

But “overuse,” notes the Publication Manual (p. 90), “weakens the flow of material.” One sentence with a phrase set off by em dashes draws the reader’s attention; but frequent interruptions of this type risk making your text seem disjointed or cumbersome.

Don't worry, the Publication Manual (p. 97) notes that you can use two hyphens with no spaces around them “if the em dash is not available on your keyboard.” If you prefer to use a true em dash, most keyboards don’t include a key for it, but a simple shortcut is available!

How to Create an Em Dash in Microsoft Word
Like many people, I use Microsoft Word as my word processor, even on my Mac. (Shortcuts for other software, like OpenOffice, will vary. Please feel free to share your tips for other programs in the comments section.)

Em dashes are easy to create in Microsoft Word:

  • On a PC, hold both the Control and Alt keys and type the minus sign (specifically, the one on the numeric keypad to the right; this shortcut will not work with the one at the top of the keyboard).


  • On a Mac, hold both the Shift and Option keys and type the minus sign (specifically, the one on the top of the keyboard).


  • Or, you can even copy and paste one of the em dashes from earlier in this post!

For more detail on the use of hyphens, en dashes, em dashes, and even minus signs, see page 97 of the Publication Manual.

Bonus tip for Scrabble players: Both en and em are standard words in the dictionary. These make excellent surprises to have ready in a tight game!


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