[By Request] The Em Dash: Friend or Foe?

I hardly consider myself an expert on the art of writing.  I do my research, and I hope I keep improving, but I think there are simply too many methods, opinions and philosophies out there for anyone to ever truly become a bona fide, incontrovertible expert.

That being said, if there’s one thing I do pride myself on knowing, it’s grammar, spelling and punctuation.  I sacrificed my (semi) perfect eyesight in the pursuit of a nearly-error-free newspaper in college, and I still make a bit of extra income doing some freelance copyediting.

So, when my friends have a question about grammar, spelling or punctuation, they often come to me, and I am happy to help.  One such friend has requested I do a pre-NaNoWriMo post on Em Dashes.  I think she was witness to a bit of bantering that took place on twitter with fellow writer, one who happens to have a rather passionate love affair with the em dash.  I, on the other hand, have often expressed my hatred of that dastardly punctuation mark, due to major overuse in publications I copyedit.

That being said, there is a time and a place for an em dash.  When used properly, I actually can’t help but be charmed.  Because my degree is in journalism, I generally follow the Associated Press guidelines:

ABRUPT CHANGE: Use dashes to denote an abrupt change in thought in a sentence or an emphatic pause: We will fly to Paris in June — if I get a raise. Smith offered a plan — it was unprecedented — to raise revenues.
SERIES WITHIN A PHRASE: When a phrase that otherwise would be set off by commas contains a series of words that must be separated by commas, use dashes to set off the full phrase: He listed the qualities — intelligence, humor, conservatism, independence — that he liked in an executive.
ATTRIBUTION: Use a dash before an author’s or composer’s name at the end of a quotation: “Who steals my purse steals trash.” — Shakespeare.
WITH SPACES: Put a space on both sides of a dash in all uses except the start of a paragraph and sports agate summaries.

I also use an em dash if someone’s dialog is cut off.
“I just can’t help myself,” Kristin said.  “Em dashes are so —”
“Don’t say it,” Elizabeth interjected.  “I simply can’t bear it.”

So, as you can see, there really are plenty of instances where the em dash acts as a true friend.  There are even times when the em dash falls by the wayside in favor of the oft-misused ellipsis.
WRONG: “We’ll learn proper punctuation… some day.”
RIGHT: “We’ll learn proper punctuation — starting now!”

Often times, the use of an em dash is a judgment call.  When I’m proofing, most of my changes are from em dash to comma.  It’s easy to mistake an interjection for a simple nonessential clause.
Nonessential Clause: “National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is a time for both feats and follies.”
Interjection: “National Novel Writing Month — or, as I like to call it,  Writers Are Crazy Month — takes place every year in November.”

One hint to help your judgment in this sort of situation is to consider whether the language you’re offsetting needs any other punctuation marks.  If it does, the em dash might be the way to go.  If it doesn’t, consider a couple of commas instead.  Additionally, consider emphasis.  I like to save em dashes so they have more oomph when I do use them.  Em dashes draw more attention to something than commas, so keep that in mind.  Is this information simply a bit of extra detail?  Or do you want the reader to really catch sight of this essential tidbit?

In the end, it’s really going to be about what makes the most sense to you as a reader.  Don’t get too hung up on whether or not you’re using them correctly, especially on a first draft.  Do what feels right, and worry about the consequences later.  This is not always good advice for life, but it is good advice for writing.  Once you’re in editing mode, you can deal with the mess you’ve created.

The most important thing to remember whilst editing is to know what you don’t know (which, by the way, was the most valuable piece of information I learned in college).  Don’t be afraid to look things up or ask someone  for help — like me.  (See what I did there?)  For instance, even I, self-proclaimed Grammar Guru, cannot remember when to use lay or lie.  Someone could be pointing a gun at my head asking me which to use, and I’d be begging for an AP Stylebook.  And if it’s OK for me, it’s OK for you.  All right?  Good.

Hope that sheds some light on the em dash, the troublesome turncoat of the punctuation world.  If you have any other questions, leave me a comment, and I’ll do my best to find the answer for you.
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15 thoughts on “[By Request] The Em Dash: Friend or Foe?

  1. I confess to being a user of the em dash — scratch that– I’m a huge user of the em dash. (did I do it right?)

    I’ve got lie and lay down, but I have trouble with affect versus effect. You should write about affect versus effect.

    • Hm, that one’s a bit tough. Because you’ve got three complete sentences there, I’d probably construct it like this:
      “I confess to being a user of the em dash. Scratch that — I’m a huge user of the em dash.”

      As for affect vs. effect, coming right up! 🙂

  2. I’ve always been a fan of the em dash. Perhaps because it has a cool name, perhaps because it looks great. That said, I try hard not to use them much.

    Informative and entertaining, as expected. 😉 If you’re not careful, Miss Ditty, your workload for editing is going to SKYROCKET.

    • Same here. I’m a huge fan of the semicolon in everyday/prose use, but it’s rarely necessary in a screenplay. Same with the em dash, with the notable exception of dialog being cut off. Of course, that doesn’t happen too often in the sorts of things I write.

    • Your blog isn’t bad at all, sir. But I understand the difference. Mine is hardly error-free, and I’m pretty lax about truly proper grammar/punctuation in casual publications like this. I keep waiting for someone to find a typo/error in the post above to embarrass me, but it hasn’t happened yet. 🙂

  3. Pingback: [By Request] Affect vs. Effect « Elizabethan Theatre

  4. I agree with your description of uses for the em dash, but to say one should just go for feel in a draft and worry about the details later seems to me sloppy. Proper punctuation isn’t exactly rocket science, the comments of your readers notwithstanding. Even numb skulls can get grammar right with a little earnest effort. Laziness is a different excuse, which obviously plays well for many folks.

    I’m not sure about Unicode acceptance of the em dash across platforms, like smart quotes, so in comments such as this one, I often use the double hyphen (–) as a stand-in, which often looks like an em dash. I’m not sure why, but I use spaces around the double dash but not the em dash. I suppose knowing the difference between optional usage (like the serial comma) and ironclad rules (commas and periods within the quote in American usage) is worth knowing to relieve some stress.

  5. I realize that a movie script (screenplay)’s use of the em dash is specific. My basic understanding is; 1) it has a space before and after the double hyphen mark; 2) it’s used for abrupt interruption of thought or speech. I’ve seen it used in descriptions, action, and dialog. Can anyone offer an example of the proper use for each?

    • Hi Robert! The same principles I’ve described in my post would apply to a screenplay as well. Whether it’s in action or dialog, the usage rules are the same. Hope that helps!

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