Crossing the line: when and how to use the em dash in your marketing copy

It’s the equivalent of a dramatic pause—so why all the drama?

There are a few things in life that raise my blood pressure. People not putting their weights away in the gym. Cutting in line. Playing music without headphones on public transport. And the misuse of the em dash. 

There’s something about the em dash. That extra-long hyphen. People bloody love it. Especially in content marketing. Used right and it has impact. So it’s time to put a (full) stop to it being used wrongly. 

Reacquaint yourself with the em dash 

The em dash (—) is a punctuation mark that can both pack a punch and take the edge off. When reading copy aloud, the em dash signals something of a dramatic pause, rather than just a short breath. Seen in this way, overuse of the em dash starts to sound a bit bonkers when they’re littered across the page.

To add to the confusion, the em dash’s dantier compadres are the en dash (–) and the hyphen (-). The en dash is used to connect numbers and dates, and your run-of-the-mill hyphen connects words together. 

The em dash’s versatility makes it so easy to use—wrongly. The em dash can replace commas, semicolons and parentheses, with different outcomes. So, here’s a quick guide to how and when to use this most alluring of lines. 

You want your copy to be more readable 

You’ve found yourself with commas all over the shop. You’ve added some more info to clear up something and all it’s done is muddy the waters. 

The copy between the commas is an appositive: a small section of extra information that is inserted into a sentence for clarification. Here, you can swap in the em dash to help bring clarity.

For example: 

Four types of sensor—proximity, pressure, position and photoelectric—are used in Sam Walrond’s robotic arm. 

You want to draw the reader’s attention

Typically, you might write something in parenthesis. By putting copy between two em dashes instead, your reader can’t help but be drawn to what lies between. What insight could possibly be important enough to be captured by the em dash? The em dash is a drama queen and intrusive, so this attention-grabber needs to be used sparingly. 

For example: 

There is talk of an off-road bike race—”to the death,” rumour has it—between Matt Kilgour and Tom Bransby. 

You want to tidy up a list 

Writing a list of items in a sentence can start to be unwieldy, causing the reader to skim or stray. The em dash can keep things on track, neatening things up and clearly bundling the items together as a collective. Begin the sentence with the list, then tie it to the end clause with the em dash. 

For example: 

Blazer, stripes, monochrome, quiff—Penny Parkes is a #girlboss. 

You want to show a quick turn of thought 

In content marketing, we want to sound sure of ourselves so this is a less likely scenario. Still, for more creative moments or a splash of informality, the em dash can be used to pivot slightly or even do a complete 180.

For example: 

The biggest threat to Livia Othen-Allen’s productivity is allergy-inducing suncream—not lack of 5G. 

So, the next time you find your copy lacking clarity, needing signposting or wanting a touch of levity, the em dash could transform your content. Just avoid dashing them off.

(Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash)