How (and why) to use em dashes
Em dashes ( — ) are among the most useful but underused punctuation marks.
When you are writing longer sentences, keep the reader’s short-term memory and mental energy in mind. Help the reader absorb information in manageable chunks by using punctuation to break the sentence into parts. The em-dash ( — ) is particularly useful for this task.
Em-dashes, en-dashes, and hyphens
At the outset, you should learn to recognize the difference between em-dashes (—), en-dashes (–), and hyphens (-). En-dashes are used primarily for numeric ranges (e.g., “March 15–20” and “pp. 159–61”).
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When to use an em-dash
Here are three common uses of em-dashes:
Use an em-dash to set off and emphasize a parenthetical phrase. (For this purpose, em-dashes are more emphatic than parentheses or commas.)
First-year law students read judicial opinions as they read most other material — from beginning to end — but experienced lawyers often jump straight to the rule.
Use em-dashes to set off a phrase that modifies or explains something in the middle of the sentence.
This year’s 2Ls — many of whom have had their plans disrupted by COVID-19 — are even more concerned about grades than usual.
Use em-dashes to add an afterthought to a sentence.
I read War and Peace this summer — all 1,200 pages of it.
How to create em-dashes
Sadly, keyboards do not normally include an em-dash key. Here are three ways to create em-dashes (which are sometimes referred to simply as “dashes”):
In Microsoft Word, type a letter immediately followed by two hyphens and then another letter, as in “a--b.” The two hyphens should automatically expand into an em-dash.
In Word or other text-editing programs, create a keyboard shortcut such as Ctrl + Alt + M that inserts an em-dash. In my version of Word, you can accomplish this by visiting Insert > Advanced Symbol > Special Characters. Then, highlight “Em Dash” and click “Keyboard Shortcut.”
Use a text expansion program such as aText or PhraseExpress to create a text snippet that expands into an em-dash. For example, when I type “emd” with aText running, those letters are immediately replaced by an em-dash.
Note that Macs and iOS devices have built-in text expansion. To set up text snippets, visit System Preferences > Keyboard > Text.
A caveat about overuse
Note that em-dashes create emphasis by forcing the reader to pause. Be careful not to overuse them. I recommend sticking to a maximum of one em-dash or pair of em-dashes per paragraph, and no more than a handful per page.
Ryan McCarl is a founding partner of Rushing McCarl LLP, author of Elegant Legal Writing (U. Cal. Press 2024), and adjunct professor at Loyola Law School. For more writing tips, subscribe to the Elegant Legal Writing newsletter and follow Ryan on LinkedIn. McCarl’s book is now available for preorder.
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