Blog/Grammar tips
7 December 2023
3 min read

Unraveling the Mystery of the Big Hyphen in Writing

Have you ever stumbled upon a long, horizontal line in a piece of writing and wondered, "What on earth is this?" Well, you're not alone! This mysterious punctuation mark, often referred to as the "big hyphen," is actually an em dash, and it's a super handy tool in the world of writing. Let's dive into the world of this intriguing punctuation mark and discover how it can add flavor and clarity to your writing.

What Exactly is the Big Hyphen?

First things first, the "big hyphen" isn't technically a hyphen at all. It's called an em dash (—), and it's about the length of the letter 'M'—hence the name. This punctuation mark is a versatile little beast, used for various purposes, from adding emphasis to replacing commas, parentheses, or colons.

When to Use the Em Dash

The em dash is like the Swiss Army knife of punctuation. It's incredibly versatile! Here are some common uses:

  • To Create a Strong Break: Think of it as a pause with pizzazz, stronger than a comma but not as formal as a colon.
  • To Indicate Interruptions: Perfect for dialogue that's cut off. "But I thought—"
  • To Add Emphasis: It's great for highlighting a part of the sentence. "She was going to confront him—today was the day."

Em Dash vs. Hyphen vs. En Dash

Confusion often arises between the em dash, hyphen (-), and en dash (–). Remember, the hyphen is the shortest and is used for compound words (e.g., mother-in-law) and splitting words at the end of a line. The en dash, slightly longer, typically denotes ranges (e.g., 1999–2003). The em dash is the longest and most versatile.

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Examples in Context

Let's see the em dash in action:

  • Strong Break: "Everything was in place—the decorations, the music, the food—except the guests."
  • Interruptions: "I swear I didn't—"
  • Adding Emphasis: "That was the moment—she realized her true calling."

Summary and Key Insights

The em dash is a powerful punctuation tool that can add depth and clarity to your writing. It's perfect for creating dramatic pauses, indicating interruptions, or adding emphasis. Remember, it's longer than a hyphen and an en dash and doesn't require spaces on either side.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I type an em dash on my keyboard?

On most word processors, you can create an em dash by typing two hyphens without spaces between words (word--word) and it will usually convert automatically. Alternatively, use the shortcut Alt + 0151 on Windows or Option + Shift + Minus on Mac.

Can I use em dashes in formal writing?

Absolutely! Em dashes can be used in formal writing, but use them sparingly. Overuse can make your writing look cluttered.

Is it okay to use spaces around an em dash?

Typically, em dashes do not need spaces around them. However, some style guides, like the Associated Press, recommend using spaces. Check the style guide relevant to your writing.

Can I replace commas with em dashes?

Yes, em dashes can replace commas for added emphasis or a more dramatic pause. Just don't overdo it, as it can disrupt the flow of your writing.

Are em dashes and hyphens interchangeable?

No, they serve different purposes. Hyphens are for compound words and word breaks, while em dashes are for pauses, interruptions, or emphasis.


The em dash might just be the unsung hero of punctuation, offering a range of uses that can enhance the style and clarity of your writing. Whether you're crafting a novel, penning an article, or even jotting down a quick email, this versatile punctuation mark can be your secret weapon for effective communication.

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