We’re halfway through week 2 of National Novel Writing Month. Today we’re continuing our review the rules for common punctuation. This essay first posted on Feb 6, 2019. As always, if you’re already up on these rules, thank you for stopping by and happy writing!
Over the years, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes.
I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and my first drafts can be peppered with them. Em dashes are a kind of author’s crutch because it is easy to rely on them.
Trust me, readers find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph. Some editors don’t want to see one on every page. Their point of view is that the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. As a tool, it’s useful as a way to emphasize certain ideas, and can also be used to good effect in the place of a semicolon. In my opinion, the em dash should be used sparingly to be most effective.
So, what is the difference between the hyphen and the em dash? Aren’t they the same thing?
Hyphens are not always necessary. If the meaning of a compound adjective is perfectly clear when written as two separate words, a hyphen is not necessary. If its meaning is understood when written as one word and common usage writes it as one word, again, a hyphen is not necessary. (See my post on Hyphens and Compound Words).
Dashes are not hyphens and are used in several ways. One kind of dash that is frequently used is the ‘en dash,’ which is the width of an ‘n.’ UK usage frequently employs the en dash in the place of the em dash.
In US usage, 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.
The dash we are discussing today is the ‘em dash,’ which is the width of an ‘m.’
An em dash (—) is a versatile punctuation mark. It is the width of an ‘m,’ hence the name. An em dash can serve as a comma. It does the same task as parentheses and serves the same purpose as a colon when used in the narrative.
Misty Barnett—my dog walker—loves to tango.
Tonight’s featured dances—the foxtrot, the waltz, and the Basque Sword Dance.
Used in these situations, the em dash feels less formal than a colon. This shift in usage is all about economics. The reading public drives our written language. Their preference for books with narratives light on formality is why colons are no longer used in narrative prose.
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.
Their main use in my work is in dialogue. Most editors will agree that current accepted practice for fiction is to not use semicolons in dialogue. Instead, we use the em dash to join short related independent clauses. Used wisely, they can smooth a choppy conversation and make it more normal sounding. A good writer will not pepper their manuscript with them.
In the rush of getting a first draft committed to paper, we use certain words and symbols as a kind of shorthand to ourselves for later, and the emdash can be one of them. When we are making revisions, we need to be alert and reword as much as we can to do without them. Used too exuberantly, they can create a mish-mash of run-on sentences where brevity would be a better choice.
So, what are these alternative forms of punctuation to create that dramatic pause? Be creative with your word choices, phrase things carefully, and see if one of these will work as well or better:
- 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.) As I said, the semicolon has fallen out of favor with many editors for dialogue. Also, many people don’t understand how to use them. However, I have nothing against them when they are used properly.
- COMMA: We purchased apples, oranges, and bananas.
Authors and editors become habituated to using emdashes without thinking. After a while, the little finger just hits that hyphen key twice whenever the mind pauses.
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?”
Write the way you want to, use em dashes where you think they work best, and rely on proper punctuation for the rest of your narrative.
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).