Properly Punctuated: Em, 2-Em, & 3-Em Dashes, —

Posted December 14, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Properly Punctuated, Self-Editing, Writing

I do adore the em dash! It makes a very emphatic point whether it conveys fear, hurry, finger-pointing…*grin*…or the abrupt stop! They will also stand-in for the missing. Yep, they’re multi-taskers, all right.

The em-dash family does have relatives, and you may want to explore their cousins: the en dash and the hyphen, a.k.a., the dash. For a milder option, explore the ellipsis.

Properly Punctuated is…

…the proper use of quotation marks, commas, semicolons, colons, ellipsis, etc., including how to properly mark dialog, ahem. As Properly Punctuated is in no way complete, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone…

If you’d like to track it, bookmark this page — and consider sharing this Properly Punctuated tidbit with friends by tweeting it.

The EM-Dash Family
Credit to: Burckmyer, 147; Chicago Manual of Style 15, 263-265.
Technically, an em dash is not considered punctuation, but a glyph. A variation on a hyphen. Personally, I still think that makes it punctuation…

For additional examples, see C.S. Lakin’s “Make a Dash for It“.

FYI: The basic em dash is three dashes slammed together. A 2-em dash is two sets of em dashes while a 3-em dash is three sets of em dashes.


Em Dash, – – – (—)
Punctuation: Three dashes (– – –) that run together
General Rule: Separates thoughts similar to parentheses, semicolons, or colons, generally giving a greater emphasis to the separated text.

When used in hardcopy, use a closed dash.

  • Chicago requires a closed dash for all dashes

When used on a website, the current practice is to insert an open dash.

CAUTION: Never use more than two em dashes in one sentence.

“Spacing the Em Dash” Rule: Accepted practice is to insert an em dash without any spaces between the words.

Hardcopy usage is—without spaces between words.

Website and eBooks currently — insert spaces between words.

Closed Em Dash Rule: Hardcopy uses a closed dash, meaning there should be no spaces between the words preceding and following an em dash.

The British equivalent of the closed American em dash is an open en dash (New Hart’s Rules, 80-81). This is a very basic rule regarding British usage. If you are using or editing British-style, you’ll need to delve deeper.

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latest—a very realistic
Open Em Dash Rule: Websites currently use an open dash (character code: —) to allow for line breaks as the display space available changes. Ebooks haven’t adopted a guideline on it, but the same principle applies as the display space on eReaders changes depending upon the device and the choice of font size.

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latest — a very realistic
Dialog Rule: Introduces a sharp, decisive, or confident break in thought or an interruption of a sentence.

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“Wait, you can’t go—”
Emphasis Rule: Highlight or specially emphasize an element.

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Jackson finally decides to get scientific about his time travelingwith Adam’s help.

John Varley’s latest — a very realistic apocalyptic thriller — has me jumping in my boots!

More Detail Rule: Allows the inclusion of greater detail (like a colon, but less formal).

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I need three volunteers—one to watch the door and two to punch tickets.
Separate Subject from Pronoun Rule: Separates a subject or series of subjects from a pronoun that introduces the main clause.

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Consensus—that was the will-o-the-wisp he sought.

Broken promises, petty rivalries, and false rumors—such were the obstacles he faced.

Index Subentry Rule: Sometimes a sub-entry in an index requires sub-subentries. In this case, use an em dash for the subentry and run-in the sub-subentries (Chicago Manual of Style, 18.27).

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Armor and weapons

—attack weapons (general): Early Helladic and Cycladic, 33; Mycenaean, 225, 255, 258–60; from shaft graves, 89, 98–100; from tholos tombs, 128, 131, 133

—body armor: cuirass, 135–36, 147,
152, 244, 258, 260, 311; greaves, 135, 179, 260; helmets, 101, 135, 147, 221, 243, 258

—bow and arrow, 14, 99, 101, 166, 276

Asine: Early Helladic, 29, 36; Middle Helladic, 74; Mycenaean town and trade, 233, 258, 263; tombs at, 300

Using Punctuation with an Em Dash
!s, ?s, ⚫s Rule: You may use an exclamation mark, a question mark, and sometimes a period preceding an em dash.

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John Varley’s latest—a very realistic apocalyptic thriller!—has me jumping in my boots.
French Dialog Rule: French writers sometimes use them to set off dialog.

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Ah, ouais?
2-em Dash, — —
Punctuation: Two Sets of Three dashes (– – –    – – –) with a single space between the sets.
Rule: Represents a missing word or part of a word, either omitted to disguise a name (or occasionally an expletive) or else missing or illegible in quoted or reprinted material (Chicago Manual of Style 15, 6.95).
Whole Word Missing Rule: If a whole word is missing, add a space on both sides of the dash.

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“The region gives its —— to the language spoken there.”
Part(s) of a word are missing Rule: When only part of a word is missing, no space appears between the dash and the existing part (or parts) of the word.

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David H——h [Hirsch?] voted aye.
End of a Word is Missing
Concealing a Name
Rule: When the dash represents the end of a word and no punctuation follows it, a normal word space follows it.

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Admiral N—— and Lady R—— were among the guests.
3-em Dash, — — —
Punctuation: Three Sets of Three dashes (– – –    – – –    – – –) with a single space between the sets.
Rule: Uses three em dashes in a bibliography. Follow it with a period. This represents the same author or editor named in the preceding entry (Chicago Manual of Style 15, 6.96).

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Mitchell, J.T. The Last Dinosaur Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
——&#8212. Landscape and Power. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2002.