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The Em Dash and Its Role in Academic Content: Punctuation Tips

Based on the context of the sentence, an em dash can either act as a replacement for a colon or a comma. It can also substitute parentheses on many occasions and take the place of other punctuation tools inside the text. Its versatility cannot be debated. However, the researchers point out that em dashes have to be used sparingly. The best way to introduce an em dash is by limiting its use in an academic context. No more than two dashes can appear in a sentence to avoid confusion.

The em dash is usually presented as a longer type of dash (—), compared to the en dash (–) and a hyphen (-). Both types of dashes are vital for the sentence structure and need to be used according to the context. Em dashes might be placed in a sentence to replace commas. In this case, the academic sources become more comprehensible. However, it is important to point out that the excessive use of an em dash implies that the sentence has a stronger emotional undertone. An example of this can be found in the sentence below:

  • ✔️ When they arrived at the place—which was overlooking the mountains—most people have left.
  • ✔️ By the time he received the promotion—the ultimate career success—he was no longer interested.

Em dashes as replacements for parentheses

In some cases, em dashes can be used as a replacement for parentheses. Parentheses are saved for formal writing and official reports. If the parentheses are included, the written work becomes academic in nature. If em dashes are chosen instead of parentheses, it indicates a less formal context.
Consider the examples below:

🟢 Formal 🟢 Informal
Upon finishing the projects (six of them in total), the writer provided a summary. Upon finishing the projects—six of them in total—the writer provided a summary.
When they have reached a conclusion (which confirmed the theory), they rejoiced. When they have reached a conclusion— which confirmed the theory— they rejoiced.

If an em dash replaces a punctuation mark at the end, only one dash is allowed in a sentence:

  • ✔️ They did not want to be there ahead of time—or, rather, too early.
  • ✔️ The vacation lasted for two days—or, rather, working days.

Em dashes as emphases on some points in a text

Em dashes might also be used to accentuate the summary of the text or a sentence in a text. In this case, the em dash is always considered to be more formal than other punctuation marks.

  • ✔️ After being defended by his fans, they announced the decision—innocent.
  • ✔️ The scandals, the rumors, the intrigues—this TV show has it all.

If the words in context have been omitted on purpose, em dashes can act as a replacement for the said words. It is better to use two em dashes to indicate a word that has been omitted:

  • ✔️ Mr. M—— was certain that he could avoid the public conference.
  • ✔️ They reached out to convince K—— that there was nothing to worry about.

If there is a word that has been skipped entirely, three em dashes need to be used. Below are the examples of the following em dash use in a sentence:

  • ✔️ The little girl,———, was playing on the beach at the time.
  • ✔️ They pointed out that ——— was absent from the meeting.

The official grammar sources confirm that em dashes should be used without spaces. However, some printed editions still use the em dash with spaces:

  • ✔️ Most people — and we mean the tourists — won’t know this.
  • ✔️ Last night — the night of the festival — the neighbors watched the show.

Em dashes as a substitution for commas

With too many commas in a sentence, the meaning of the paragraph can become confusing. To clarify the context for the audience and make the academic paper more readable, it is recommended to use em dashes. Em dashes can take the place of commas:

Wrong❌ Right✔️
Four people, Lisa, Mary, Andy, and Jaime, were trying to enter the house. Four people—Lisa, Mary, Andy, and Jaime—were trying to enter the house.
He glanced at the clock on the wall, his favorite, old-fashioned clock, and started smiling. He glanced at the clock on the wall—his favorite, old-fashioned clock—and started smiling.
Hedonism, always searching for something, someone, is good for personal gain. Hedonism—always searching for something, someone—is good for personal gain.
If you have to leave, tell the manager, the first one, not the second one, and you will be free. If you have to leave, tell the manager— the first one, not the second one— and you will be free.

Em dashes in fiction

Em dashes are often used in novels and other works of fiction. If used in a sentence, they may indicate a sudden change of tone. The following examples can be found in creative writing. In academic writing, using em dashes can create a sense of uncertainty.

  • ✔️ The meeting will probably start at 12:30—not 10:30.
  • ✔️ Where are these—I mean, where are my presents?
  • ✔️ Would you be so kind and—oh, forget about it.
  • ✔️ I would like you to—no, sweetie, this is not true—I would like you to tell me everything you know.

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