Tag Archives: em dash

#amwriting: Power Punctuation

A little power is a dangerous thing, and certain punctuation has power.

Exclamation points!

Em dashes—


These are all wonderful, fun things to play with, but making too free with the power punctuation makes the narrative too breathless, or in the case of ellipses, too slow. When prose is well written, it conveys the excitement of the moment without force. A good author doesn’t resort to creating excitement with the overuse of exclamation points as this makes the narrative breathless. It tells the reader what to think, rather than showing them a scene that is exciting.

When I am laying down the first draft, I am just as guilty of filling the manuscript with exclamations, em dashes, and ellipses.  I am in a rush to get the ideas down on paper, so in some places, this is a subconscious shorthand for the second draft, which is where I take those telling scenes and show them.

I do a global search for exclamation points, ellipses, and em dashes. At each one, I examine the scene. Nine times out of ten, I change the power punctuation to a period, or I find the em dash or ellipsis was not needed.

Exclamation points, em dashes, and ellipses are like speech tags. They are necessary, but simplicity is the key to making them unobtrusive. Generally, dialogue worded powerfully, along with the way you visualize and then show the attitude of the characters and their situation will serve to convey the emotions.

When it’s done right, you will only need one or two morsels of power punctuation, and the punctuation you use won’t be a needle in the eye of the reader. The common, garden-variety period or comma will usually serve the situation well, and won’t throw the reader out of the book.

All punctuation has its place and should be used appropriately. Exclamation points, em dashes, and ellipses should be used, but only at important points. For the most part, the way you have set the scene combined with the dialogue itself will convey the tension without your having to sprinkle the narrative with power punctuation.

I suggest you do a global search and change most of them to a period.

But what about !?  I only recently learned that these are called “interrobangs.” Comic books frequently employ interrobangs, generally because the authors are limited on space for narrative and use creative punctuation as a shorthand. They do this as a way of telling the story.

It’s your narrative, so of course, you will do as you see fit. However, the exclamation point before a question mark is not accepted punctuation in literature intended for adults, so don’t be surprised if you receive negative feedback in reviews. Interrobangs are a writing habit professional writers will avoid if they want to be taken seriously.

Peppering the narrative with exclamation points and interrobangs is a form of telling the reader “this is exciting”as opposed to showing the excitement. We want to immerse the reader, not blow them out of the manuscript. A great resource for ideas on how to convey strong emotions without telling the reader what the character is feeling is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

All sentences should have only one punctuation mark to signify the end. “Ahah!” you say. “What about the ellipsis?” When the ellipsis falls at the end of the sentence, it should be three dots followed by the required punctuation.

  • If the ellipsis falls at the end of a sentence in dialogue, use a comma at the end of it followed by a speech tag. “But, my dog…,” Annie said, her brow furrowed.
  • If no speech tag is used, employ a period, question mark, etc. “But, my dog….” Annie’s brow furrowed.

This is because the ellipsis or em dash at the end of a sentence symbolize unspoken words, trailing off. They are not considered punctuation.

This is what the Chicago Manual of Style says:

Use an ellipsis for any omitted word, phrase, line, or paragraph from within a quoted passage. There are two commonly used methods of using ellipsis: one uses three dots for any omission, while the second makes a distinction between omissions within a sentence (using three dots: . . .) and omissions between sentences (using a period and a space followed by three dots: . …). An ellipsis at the end of a sentence with no sentence following should be followed by a period (for a total of four dots).

Once again, I emphasize that we use the Chicago Manual of Style if we are writing fiction and intend to publish it. The Chicago Manual of Style is written specifically for writers, editors, and publishers and is the publishing industry standard. All the editors at the major publishing houses own and refer to this book when they have questions.

What is the best style guide for writing technical user manuals?

Are you writing for a newspaper? AP style was developed for expediency in the newspaper industry and is not suitable for novels or for business correspondence, no matter how strenuously journalism majors try to push it forward. If you are using AP style, you are writing for the newspaper, not for literature. These are two widely different mediums with radically different requirements.

For business correspondence, you want to use the Gregg Reference Manual.

If you develop a passion for words and ways in which we bend them, as I have done, you could soon find your bookshelf bowing under the weight of your reference books. Writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of occupation. There is no one style guide that will fit every purpose. Each essay and book may be meant for a different reader, and each should be written with the style that meets the expectations of the intended readers.

However, some things are universal:

Exclamation points must be used sparingly.

Ellipses symbolize omitted words and are not punctuation, so when the conversation trails off, you must add an ending punctuation. My God, I thought. What…?

Em dashes can either set off phrases—like this—or if used at the end of a sentence an em dash can indicate cut off words.

Consider the following quote from A Dog’s Tale by Mark Twain. In this case, you do not add punctuation:

It did seem to me that life was just too lovely to—

It is your task to write the narrative so that it shows the character’s emotions. Their eyes will widen, or their mouth will drop open, or they will stop and stare. When it comes to punctuation, do you tell, or do you show? You make the decision, but I see the interrobang and the overuse of the exclamation point as if they were too much seasoning, strong flavors that can ruin the the taste of the narrative.

Sources and Attributions:

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), page 639 sections 13.51 – 13.55 The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition text © 2010 by The University of Chicago.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), page 334 Section 6.84 Em dashes to Indicate Sudden Breaks, The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition text © 2010 by The University of Chicago.

A Dog’s Tale,  by Mark Twain. © 1904 Harper & Brothers, via Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Dog%27s_Tale&oldid=769178379 (accessed May 16, 2017).



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Dash it all

Rex BArksI am a product of 1960’s American public school system.  The foundation of my knowledge of the English language is that of American English from forty years ago.

When I was a student in elementary school and even in high-school, we “diagrammed sentences,” and in doing so, it was thought that we bored students would learn the proper way to write a compound sentence, and even to combine our sentences into paragraphs. Had I ever paid attention in class, I suppose I would have learned something.

Alas, I spent more time staring out the window, or reading my contraband ‘Lensman Series’ books concealed inside my textbooks than I did studying.

Sentence diagramming is defined as a method of grammar instruction that relies on a standardized framework of lines and branches to reveal the syntactic structure of a sentence.


Years and years spent diagramming sentences and at the end of it all I had learned little, if anything, about grammar. Even in high-school I had no clue what the diagram meant or why we were doing it. It was like hearing Merlin mumbling a magic spell. I didn’t understand it, but I knew it must mean something.

But I could quote lengthy passages from any of Tolkien’s works.

Many people still swear by this arcane and mysterious craft. There are entire websites devoted to teaching grammar to people blessed with  more patience and free time than I. If you are interested, here is one I came across:

Basic Sentence Parts, Phrase Configurations

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 both the Chicago Manual of Style, and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I have also invested in many books written by editors and famous authors, all in my quest to write as well as I can.

In the last year I have noticed a plague of sorts–a plethora of hyphens and dashes, as annoying as a wall of italics and they show up in both indie and traditionally published works.  I don’t really like them, as a reader, but I find myself using them almost habitually. I have resolved to break that habit.

Elements of StyleIn informal writing, such as notes or Facebook posts, hyphens and dashes are common, and are like the ubiquitous ‘F’ word–one hardly notices it anymore. (See?)

Hyphens and dashes are used in several ways. One is the ‘en dash’, which is the width of an ‘n’. It is written space hyphen space.  Another is the ’em dash’, which is the width of an ‘m’. It is written this way: word–word (or word dash dash word) and when using the MS-WORD program for word-processing, it makes a long dash. The en dash seems to be more British, and em dash more American, but they have become interchangeable.

I have read an amazing number of books written by wonderful authors who all seem to use em or en dashes in lieu of proper punctuation when they are trying to emphasize a particular thought.  I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, but I hate to see it used in a novel.  I DON’T like them because some authors rely on them too heavily. It is too distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph or even on every page. If we think about it, it is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. It is useful to emphasize certain ideas, but needs to be used sparingly and creatively.

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.”  

So what are these alternative forms of punctuation to create that dramatic pause?

MSClipArt MP900390083.JPG RF PD

PERIOD = a full stop. End of Sentence. That’s all folks.

SEMICOLON:Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two sentences where the conjunction has been left out. Call me tomorrow; we’ll go dancing then. ( The AND has been left out.)

COLON: Use the colon after a complete sentence to introduce a list of items when introductory words such as namelyfor example, or that is do not appear.

Hyphens, en dashes and em dashes are like crack. 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 semi-colons.

I love this quote from a wonderful blog on the website Slate.com. The blog post, called “The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash,” is 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 for me.  I will have to work harder to develop my writing chops, and find ways to set certain phrases off within the framework of a sentence without resorting to the hyphen, the dash, the em dash or the en dash.

Dash it all.

The butter churn


Filed under Battles, Books, Fantasy, Humor, Literature, Uncategorized, writer, writing