When to Use—and Not Use—an Em-Dash

Chris Lele, Writing for,
Episode #534
When to use--and not use--dashes

3. Em-dashes in Place of a Semicolon

I wasn’t exaggerating when I said the em-dash was versatile—it can even take the place of the semicolon. Once again, the em-dash adds more emphasis than the traditional punctuation mark. To illustrate, I’m going to reproduce the first sentence of this paragraph, but with a semicolon:

I wasn’t exaggerating when I said the em-dash was versatile; it can even take the place of the semicolon. 

It’s up to you, but remember: Making a choice that is more apt—the semicolon is already a difficult piece of punctuation to navigate—will show off your skills as a writer. 

Misusing the Em-dash

At the same time, if you start using em-dashes throughout a text to emphasize all your thoughts, the dashes start to lose their power. And your writing will come across like one of those amateur actors who dramatizes every single line he delivers—heavy-handed.

Another way to overuse em-dashes is by using them whenever a semicolon, colon, or parentheses show up. One mark of good writing is the discerning choices the author makes in punctuation. Defaulting to the em-dash suggests you haven’t really thought through why you used the mark in the first place. It also makes your writing look full of dashes, which can confuse the reader. That professional writers—mostly—know how not to overuse em-dashes might account for why we tend to overlook them. A good rule of thumb: try not to use them more than twice per paragraph. 

Finally, level of formality is huge. If you are writing fiction or using casual language (like an email to a close colleague), em-dashes work well. But if you are applying for a job or asking for a letter of recommendation, you want to be careful in your use of the em-dash. Yet even in these more formal contexts, a well-deployed em-dash can give your writing a dash of sophistication. 


About the Author

Chris Lele is the GRE and SAT Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh Online Test Prep. In his time at Magoosh, he has helped students across the globe dramatically improve on these difficult tests. Some have even gone on to get near perfect scores.


This is the Dear World Instagram post I mentioned in the podcast:


A photo posted by thegrammargirl (@thegrammargirl) on


About the Author

Chris Lele, Writing for Grammar Girl

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