Stop spamming the em dash everywhere

Yes, we all love it — maybe even too much.

Mikołaj, looking slightly to the right from behind.

Mikołaj Biernat

Mar 18, 2023

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4 min read

The first time I noticed the em dash, I thought it was a bug. An abnormally long bug. It was so hypnotizing — I couldn’t look away to keep on reading. Yet, I didn’t even know what it was.

But once I asked my co-worker to show me how he types that weird thingy, I felt like I had joined a secret club.

What’s an em dash (—)?

As The Punctuation Guide explains, “The em dash is perhaps the most versatile punctuation mark. […]”. It can replace commas, periods, parentheses, colons, or semicolons, which follow more rigid usage rules. Sounds great, right? But flexibility can lead to misuse. And in the case of the em dash, it’s no different.

Why’s the em dash so … attractive?

Typing the em dash feels like showing off a trick. And that requires practice — after all, there’s no dedicated em dash key. You have to study the shortcut or create a text replacement rule. It takes skill to pull off naturally.

And that gets you impressed looks from the people in the dark. Your ego only grows when they approach you about that symbol. “Glad you asked!” I’d begin before going off for a good five minutes about the different dash types.

Something about the design of the em dash makes you stare at it like Patrick Bateman at black-and-white business cards. You can feel the confidence pulsing from its fine shape. There’s an extraordinary amount of white space around the glyph; it looks expensive.

Jealous Patrick Bateman staring at a business card with nothing but a big em dash.

It’s unapologetically wide. When put somewhere in the middle of a paragraph, it seems like there’s a huge gap between the words. But it’s not empty — there’s an em dash.

And the best thing? You can’t really go wrong with it. Sure, there are some rules of good taste. But if you find the balance, you can get away with the lack of punctuation variety.

So why not put the em dash everywhere?

Each punctuation mark conveys a certain meaning. When used properly, it helps to understand the idea and feel the way the writer intended. But if they spam em dashes everywhere, that meaning is lost. The text becomes hard to read. For example: the period ends a sentence. It tells you to take a breath before you move on to the next thought. But in the sea of em dashes — that are way easier to spot than a period — does that still hold true?

The existence of three different types of dashes doesn’t help. Of course, every one of them has its own function. But if you’re fixated on just the em dash, you end up using it exclusively everywhere — often incorrectly.

Thanks to the versatility of the em dash, it’s tempting to use it in titles. Most often, I see it in meta titles, documentation headlines, and file/layer names, where space matters. And the em dash wastes so much!

Tips to follow

Two per sentence, a dozen per writing

Don’t put more than two em dashes in a sentence. Otherwise, it’s difficult to distinguish the primary and parallel thought. And, in general, don’t overuse them in your writing. As a rule of thumb, I try not to exceed a dozen of em dashes per five minute read.

Understand different punctuation marks

Learn what all the punctuation marks mean. It might be overwhelming at first, but they’re here for a reason. Again, The Punctuation Guide is a straightforward reference with examples. Once you know your options, it’s easy to avoid the missteps I’ve mentioned.

Mind the space

Where spacing matters (and grammar doesn’t), consider a colon (:), a vertical bar (|), or any other glyph that’s thinner than the em dash. Chances are that it’ll do the job and save you some space. Make sure that it fits the context, though.

Hyphen your unordered lists

If you’re not sure what glyph to use for your unordered list, go with the trusted hyphen. Most text editors will convert it into a properly formatted bullet point. Although, if they don’t support nested bullet points (or unordered lists whatsoever), you can make them yourself with hyphens and em dashes.

And remember

An em dash can make or break your writing. Avoid it and you’ll be missing out. But shove it everywhere and you’ll come off as pretentious.

Updated on Mar 21, 2023