Em & En Dashes

A reader commented on my last punctuation post with an important business writing question: when do you use an em dash versus a colon?

The em dash (—) is roughly the length of an m. It can be used in lieu of a comma, semicolon, colon or parentheses, with the added benefit of adding emphasis, indicating an interruption or an abrupt change of thought.

  • Please call my associate — Sarah Cole — to schedule a meeting. (Parentheses or commas also fit well here.)
  • Today’s seminar will address three topics — employer branding, employee retention and selection. (A colon also fits well in this sentence.)
  • Our agreement with XYZ Corporation is clear — we provide all printing services and they maintain our website. (A semicolon can also distinguish the two clauses.)

The en dash (–) is roughly the length of an n. It can be used to replace the word to and the hyphen in a compound.

  • We’ll discuss our October–December sales numbers. (The word to could be substituted in this sentence.)
  • Our marketing team will present their strategy for our non–European markets. (The en dash creates the compound word.)

The rules for using an en dash are fairly clear cut. The em dash, on the other hand, varies widely in its use. Some writers consider them informal, so they avoid using them in formal or business projects. Other writers don’t see a difference in formality and use em dashes to add variety and interest to their writing. As long as you follow the basic rules, you can use em dashes in a way that highlights your personal style!


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