top of page

The Great Em Dash Divide

The great em dash divide grammar wars when to use the em dash

Presenting the third – and final --- installment of our tongue-in-cheek ‘Three greatest debates in literature’ series:

3) The Great Em Dash Divide -- why it is missing from our keyboards.


If you really want to drive a point home through your writing — there is only one way to do that — so some say.

Those headstrong individuals claim that the em dash is one of the best pieces of punctuation ever created. And who can blame them? A horizontal line is a genius invention, after all.

What do you mean, “Not, it’s not?”

Colons, parentheses, commas and even periods can serve the same function when stringed together in writing correctly, but em dashes have more of a talkative, informal and enticing quality for readers, some might contend. Technically, similar punctuation just doesn’t have the same meaning, especially when it comes to the visual.

But of course, you have the question of how the visually-similar hyphen and en dash differ from their cousin, the em dash.

By the look of it, a hyphen is very short, doesn't have a space on either side of it and does hold a place on the keyboard.

Not everyone is happy about that — what did en and em dashes ever do to deserve this neglect? Some editors might reveal an ugly personality when answering this question.

In function, hyphens are used to link prefixes to words or create compound adjectives, such as “conversation-worthy,” which means these tiny lines are rarely a part of the great dash debate that divides writers and editors.

When it comes to differentiating between the two dashes, en dashes have the rough length of an “N” while em dashes have the rough length of an “M”. Pretty self-explanatory, right?

The varying uses, however, can get a bit confusing when your computer keyboard doesn’t care enough to put the relatively easy work in.

Phone keyboards are a different story.

The en dash gets neglected both on the keyboard and in word processing programs, and it is usually found only in between numbers, indicating a range or time period. In other words, numbers seem less important to big technology companies.

Take that, math.

Finally, em dashes are the most literary device-like of them all. They communicate a pause or interruption — or indicate the stress of a phrase — perhaps even a stream of consciousness — in a sentence — and can wield powers unpossessed by any other piece of punctuation.


A comma might have been able to replace one of the em dashes above, maybe even a semicolon could have done the job and added some variety; but I prefer the charm of the extra white space.

Not everyone does, though.

Microsoft Word knows the value of converting two typed hyphens to the em dash, but the desktop version of Google Docs just leaves the double hyphen you’re forced to put as if it means something.

It doesn’t.

It’s mocking you.

No matter where you stand when it comes to the em dash, the choice of which tech company we should support is now clearer than ever.

Respect matters.

Do you think the em dash has a place in writing? Let us know in the comments below — we’re looking forward to what you have to say.


bottom of page