Over the years, as I’ve become a professional writer, I have learned what I know about my craft by not only experiencing the editing process but by availing myself of the Chicago Manual of Style. I regularly attend seminars on writing craft and have invested in many books written by editors and famous authors.
I do write reviews for books I enjoyed, and in the course of reading for two review blogs, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes instead of proper punctuation when they are trying to emphasize a particular thought.
I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and that habit bleeds over into my first drafts. It’s incredibly easy to rely on them too heavily. However, I find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph or even on every page. If we think about it, the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. It is useful to emphasize certain ideas but should be used sparingly to be most effective.
So how DO we use them?
Hyphens join certain compound words. Never use a hyphen in the place of an em dash or en dash. See my blogpost of February 12, 2018, on the subject of how to use Hyphens.
Dashes are not hyphens and are used in several ways.
One is the ‘en dash,’ which is the width of an ‘n.’ Another is the ‘em dash,’ which is the width of an ‘m.’
En dashes join two numbers that are written numerically, not spelled. To insert an en dash in a Word document: type a single hyphen between two words, with a space on either side of it:
1994 – 1996 (1994SpaceHyphenSpace1996) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the hyphen will form an en dash.
An em dash (—) is a versatile punctuation mark. It is the width of an ‘m,’ hence the name. An em dash serves as a comma, does the same task as parentheses, and also does the work of the colon. Used in these situations, the em dash creates a slightly less formal effect and is a useful tool in the author’s arsenal.
To insert an em dash in a Word document: type two hyphens next to each other without any space between the words or hyphens:
A—B (LetterHyphenHyphenLetter) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the two hyphens will form an em dash.
They can be more emphatic than a comma and will really set apart any clause bracketed by them. In dialogue, we don’t use semicolons to join short related independent clauses. Instead, we use em dashes. Used sparingly, and not in every paragraph, they can smooth a choppy conversation and make it more normal sounding.
Unfortunately, in the rush of getting a first draft committed to paper, I tend to use them far too frequently, and in my hands, they lose their effectiveness.
I regularly find them sprinkled through my work, maniacally creating run-on sentences where brevity would be a better choice.
Properly, an author should use a comma, a semi colon, or a period to create that dramatic break, because too many em dashes are like too many curse words: they lose their power when used too freely. Lynn Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, has been quoted as saying “People use the em dash because they know you can’t use it wrongly—which for a punctuation mark, is an uncommon virtue.”
- PERIOD = a full stop. End of Sentence. That’s all folks.
- SEMICOLON = Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two complete sentences where the conjunction has been left out. Call me tomorrow; we’ll go dancing then. (The AND has been left out.) The sentences must be directly related to each other. If they are not related, use a period and make them stand alone.
- COLON = Use the colon after a complete sentence to introduce a list of items when introductory words(such as namely, for example, or that is) do not appear. Here is the list of fruits: apples, oranges, and bananas.
Hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes are like any other drug. Authors and editors become addicted to using them. Perhaps this plague of dashes has occurred because they don’t understand the basic rules of the road regarding periods, colons, and semicolons. Get a copy of The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation and crack it open; you will be amazed at what you find. The wise author will make use of this excellent tool.
I have mentioned this wonderful quote before, which is from a blog post called “The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash.” The post was written by the witty Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic:
“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?”
That wonderful paragraph says it all. Em dashes have their place, but any easy crutch is to be avoided when it comes to writing a good narrative. As in all things, common sense is the rule of the day.
My personal writing goal is to find ways to set important phrases off within the framework of a sentence without relying so heavily on the em dash. This means I must write as creatively as possible, with intention and deliberate phrasing and I must make proper use of punctuation.
Wow. What a concept!
Credits and Attributions:
“The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash” by Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic 24 May 2011 (accessed 11 March 2018).
Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynn Truss, Publisher: Avery April 2004.