I love the em dash. It’s a great alternative to commas and colons, and allows for clearer copy. Unfortunately, the majority of keyboards don’t feature this vital punctuation mark, and consecutive hyphens aren’t always a good substitute.
Word automatically replaces two hyphens with an em dash, but if you use Google Docs for word-processing instead, you won’t get that functionality by default.
Fortunately, there’s a keyboard shortcut that you can use to get the em dash. And, Google Docs also lets you substitute characters — such as consecutive hyphens — with the em dash provided that you tweak some settings.
Without any further ado, let’s see how we can do that.
To do that, hold down the Alt key, and then enter 0151 on the number pad.
Note: If you have a laptop without a separate number pad, use the Fn and alphanumeric keys to insert the numbers instead. On keyboards with the US layout, for example, that means pressing Alt-Fn-MJIJ to get the em dash.
On Macs, you can use the Shift-Option-Hyphen keystroke to insert the em dash.
Now, I’m not going to say that this is the most effective way to add an em dash to your documents. Actually, it’s not fun having to make use of a shortcut that involves multiple keys, especially if you intend to make regular use of this punctuation mark.
So, let’s look at another, albeit a more convenient method, to make the em dash a permanent stay on your keyboard.
Replace Consecutive Hyphens
Using two consecutive hyphens is the next best alternative on keyboards without a dedicated em dash key. But, you can also configure Google Docs to automatically substitute two hyphens with an em dash whenever you insert them. Sounds cool, right?
Step 1: On the Google Docs window, point to Tools, and then select Preferences.
Step 2: Insert a double hyphen into the vacant box under Replace.
Now, add the em dash into the box under With using the Alt-0151 or Shift-Option-Hyphen (on Mac) keyboard shortcuts. Or, you can choose to copy and paste the em dash character here: —
Click OK to add the substitution to Google Docs.
That’s it! You should now see an em dash whenever you press the hyphen key twice and follow it up with a space.
There’s also another way to insert an em dash in Google Docs, and that's via the Special Characters selections screen.
Step 1: Open the Insert menu and select Special Characters to access the Insert Special Characters pop-up box.
Step 2: Search for Em Dash, and you should see it come up within the search results. Just click the symbol to add it to your document.
Now, you don’t in fact need to re-open the Insert Special Characters box each time you want to insert an em dash. You can just move it out of your way and continue working on your document, and your em dash — including hundreds of other special characters — is just a click away!
Before we wrap things up, let’s look at a couple of neat tricks based on what we were talking above.
Find & Replace
Substituting hyphens for em dashes doesn't affect any consecutive hyphens that you had already inserted previously. But don’t worry. There’s a trick that you can use to instantly replace all consecutive hyphens with em dashes in any document.
Step 1: Open a Google Docs document, click Edit, and then click Find and Replace.
Step 2: Add consecutive hyphens into the box next to Find, and an em dash into the box next to Replace with. To add the em dash, either use the Alt+0151 or Shift-Option-Hyphen keyboard shortcuts, or copy and paste the em dash character here: —
Click Replace All and enjoy the magic. Obviously, you need to do this for each document individually, but it’s still better than having to re-enter them manually.
Replace Incorrect Text
As we talked above, substituting consecutive hyphens is just one to get the em dash functionality easily. But, that doesn’t mean that the substitution list is limited to just punctuation marks.
If you have clumsy fingers like I do, and frequently mistype certain words like “friends” as “freinds” or “the” as “teh,” you just found the perfect way to prevent correcting text all the time.
Just add all those words to the substitution list and type away without worrying!
I can't imagine writing without the em dash, and it feels refreshing to get this functionality so easily in Google Docs. While you can insert the em dash via a keyboard shortcut or as a special character, I strongly recommend substituting it for consecutive hyphens.
And, make sure to use that substitution list to your heart’s content!
So, what are your thoughts on the em dash? Do let us know in comments.