Em dash—how difficult is it?

I got a question yesterday about how to use an em dash. Certain people I am related to by blood seemed to think that was an open invitation to show off. Well, there’s one in every family, or in my case, there are about four, but who’s counting?

In my opinion, you can’t use an em dash properly without getting a refresher on the hyphen and (here’s the shocker) learning about the en dash as well. Here is a user-friendly writer’s (or anyone’s) guide to the semi colon as well.

Now, the colon. The colon sets of a list or an explanation of what came before if and only if (this is so important, I broke my don’t use italics for emphasis rule) the earlier part of the sentence is an independent clause, which means a complete sentence. What does that mean to the common writer? You almost never use it.

A colon, used before a list, means approximately “such as the following” (but remember, what comes before the list has to be a complete sentence). For example, “There were four books in my bag: War and Peace, The Complete Peanuts, The Things They Carried, and The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankeweller.” You can see that the beginning of the sentence, before the colon, stands on its own.

You can also use a colon as amplification. “I had a strange taste in books: the four books in my bag had nothing in common with each other.” The second half of the sentence explains the first half.

Does that make sense? Did I lose you at “em”?

12 responses to “Em dash—how difficult is it?

  1. Thank you! Have you already done one on when to use a period in or out of parentheses/ quotation marks when it comes at the end of a sentence? I rotate the placement based on the law of averages, but am fairly certain this method that worked well for standardized tests, may not apply.

  2. There is so much for me to learn from Indy Clause: how to use the em dash, when not to use a semi-colon, and the difference between dashes en and em.

    Thank god for Indy!

    Now, what about those crazy dashes?

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