The basics, what on earth is an Em Dash?
It is a dash the size of the letter M (would you believe that’s how it got its name?). Microsoft word will create an em dash for you when you put two dashes together as such –. Do not put in a space before or after the em dash.
I will look at a FEW common uses here (there are a couple more):
The em dash can be used to signal a break in thought or tone:
Take a look at how F. Scott Fitzgerald used it in The Great Gatsby: “I lived at West Egg, the–well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them.” On that note, and completely unrelated to this post, check out Hemingway’s criticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night–it will make you feel better about your critique partners feedback.
Okay lets get back to it, here is another example of the em dash used where there is a break in thought: The trees stretched high into the sky–Jane wondered if she’d ever seen trees so tall.
If the quote itself is interrupted the em dash will go inside the quote:
“Jane run, before they–” a shrill scream shattered the otherwise silent night. It was too late.
It can be used to break the quote with narrative as such:
“Jane run”–he pointed behind her–“they’re almost over the wall.”
It can be used where you have an abrupt, startling appositive or where you want to emphasize the appositive:
First lets look at an appositive without the em dash, rather it is is punctuated with commas:
Jane, a skittish teen who faints at the sight of blood, stood on wobbly legs as the red liquid pooled around her.
Now with em dash emphasis:
Jane–a skittish teen who faints at the sight of blood–stood on wobbly legs as the red liquid pooled around her.
To set off parenthetical fragments (or sentences) especially where it relates to the main thought:
Jane ran–desperate legs sprinting as fast as they could, her arms swinging for momentum–targeting the back-seat of the waiting truck.
To summarise the previous series:
Guns, explosives, knives–those were Jane’s favourite weapons.
Use of the em dash:
So how often should the Em dash be used? This is probably personal preference, however, I think because the em dash can be a powerful tool of emphasis you don’t want to be using it all the time–especially because it can be quite jarring to read when used too frequently.
How about you, how often do you like to use the em dash?