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The Em Dash And It’s Enemies

26 May 2011 @ 14:19

Over at Salon, Noreen Malone declares war on the Em Dash [tip of the fedora to Stacy McCain who is proud of his ED — no, that did not come out right] :

What’s the matter with an em dash or two, you ask?—or so I like to imagine. What’s not to like about a sentence that explores in full all the punctuational options—sometimes a dash, sometimes an ellipsis, sometimes a nice semicolon at just the right moment—in order to seem more complex and syntactically interesting, to reach its full potential? Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?

Nope—or that’s my take, anyway. Now, I’m the first to admit—before you Google and shame me with a thousand examples in the comments—that I’m no saint when it comes to the em dash. I never met a sentence I didn’t want to make just a bit longer—and so the dash is my embarrassing best friend. When the New York Times’ associate managing editor for standards—Philip B. Corbett, for the record—wrote a blog post scolding Times writers for overusing the dash (as many as five dashes snuck their way into a single 3.5-paragraph story on A1, to his horror), an old friend from my college newspaper emailed it to me. "Reminded me of our battles over long dashes," he wrote—and, to tell the truth, I wasn’t on the anti-dash side back then. But as I’ve read and written more in the ensuing years, my reliance on the dash has come to feel like a pack-a-day cigarette habit—I know it makes me look and sound and feel terrible—and so I’m trying to quit.

The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don’t you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won’t be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that’s not yet complete? Strunk and White—who must always be mentioned in articles such as this one—counsel against overusing the dash as well: "Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate." Who are we, we modern writers, to pass judgment—and with such shocking frequency—on these more simple forms of punctuation—the workmanlike comma, the stalwart colon, the taken-for-granted period?

As you can see, she greatly exaggerates it’s use to make her point, which is:

…if you want to make your point—directly, with clarity, and memorably—I have some advice you’d do well to consider. Leave the damn em dash alone.

Now, as we learn as we mature: moderation in almost all things is the best way to go [there are times when moderation is the wrong thing to practice, as AuH2O understood]. Regular readers of these Dispatches know that I employ the Em Dash on a regular basis, as I do the parenthesis [in my eccentricity, I prefer to use the bracket version of them]. Since the ED is not being used in the defense of Liberty, it obviously falls under the moderation column. Just because some folks abuse the privilege and use the ED too much is not making a convincing case that it should be banned altogether, just as the fact that a small group of people become obsessed with online porn means online porn should be blocked for all of us [the obsessions people have with Oprah and/or Obama are another story].

The Em Dash is just one of a number of tools in the writing toolbox that are there to help the writer bring life to the printed word, to make them jump alive from the page and into the soul. Let’s face it: the natural tendancy of words on a page are to lay there like so many sloths on a stone, Charlie Rangels on the beach. In addition to the well-chosen and/or rhythmic adjective, the Em Dash can be the dramatic accent in a sentence that drives home the particular emotion the writer wants you to experience. This is especially important in the writing of blog posts, which are like Jazz Jams [and just as dangerous]. It’s riffing for the most part and, as any musician will tell you, you have to know when to punctuate the riff and when to just go with the flow of the jam.

To assign and abandon the Em Dash to the dash heap of history is to deprive every writer of an essential tool in constructing their arguments and in effectively communicating emotion — I also suspect the movement to remove it from use is part of the Bolshe plot to bureaucratize our language and have a world where words paint only pictures in institutional green.


  1. 26 May 2011 @ 16:13 16:13

    To paraphrase Patrick Henry –Give me the Em dash or give me death!!– I think he said that. It might have been Mick Jagger–I’ll have to look it up.

  2. 26 May 2011 @ 17:56 17:56

    Dash ’em? It’s a dash, dash-it-all. What’s so “em” about it?

  3. 26 May 2011 @ 19:21 19:21

    I like the dash-it allows me to write really long sentences-presenting me with the ability to convey more ideas-by using more words-and who doesn’t like words?

    Eh, who am I kidding? I have the typing skills of an 90 year old, arthritic grandmother on crystal meth, and no one is ever going to confuse me with a professional writer.

  4. 26 May 2011 @ 19:53 19:53

    If Noreen was a music critic she’d want to snap the conductor’s baton.

  5. 26 May 2011 @ 20:48 20:48

    Now Richard, you’re getting dangerously close to Freudian territory. This is a family show. Wha-? It’s not?
    Never mind.

  6. bobbelvedere permalink*
    27 May 2011 @ 23:54 23:54

    Infidel: Take another tab, man, and the answer will come.

    Ran: Been mixing Manischewitz with your lithium again, I see.

    Matt: You wrote, ‘I have the typing skills of an 90 year old, arthritic grandmother on crystal meth’. The first step is admitting you have a problem — good for you!.


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