To use the em dash or to abuse the em dash

The dash, or rather the em dash ( — ) , is getting lots of press lately.

First, what is an em dash?  It is a double hyphen ( — ) without the space between the two hyphens, and with a space on either side separating it from preceding or subsequent words.  It is called an em because it is the length of the letter “M.”  There is also an en dash ( – ), basically a hyphen.

If you’ve read the poetry of Emily Dickinson, you’ve seen the em dash used instead of other punctuation.  Some of her original editors tried to repunctuate Dickinson’s poems to make them conform to standard English.  The editors removed her em dashes, and replaced them with commas, periods and question marks.  Today’s editors publish the poems as Dickinson wrote them.  Here, for example, is a poem of hers showing her use of the em dash.

They shut me up in Prose —

As when a little Girl

They put me in the Closet —

Because they liked me “still” —


Still! Could themself have peeped —

And seen my Brain — go round —

They might as wise have lodged a Bird

For Treason —

In the Pound —


Because the em dash can mean almost any kind of punctuation you want it to mean, it is both under fire and embraced, depending on your stance.  It is under fire because it is seen as unspecific punctuation.  The writer is just too lazy, or in too much of a hurry, to choose the correct punctuation, say critics.

But those who embrace the em dash point out that it takes extra work to use it since there is no em dash key on keyboards.  On my keyboard, for example, to make an em dash I must end one word, double hyphenate, and start another word, all without spacing.  Then I must go back and insert spacing before and after the em dash.

Proponents say the em dash is embraced because its captures the way people talk — in a breezy, hurried fashion, unconcerned with formalities.

Grammar books say the proper use of the em dash is to show when a thought is interrupted.  (Mrs. Smith was climbing the ladder — lightning! — so she quickly descended.)  Grammar rules say that if you use one em dash in a sentence, you must use a second to show where the interruption ends, unless the interruption ends the sentence, in which case you use a period.  To avoid confusion, you should use only one pair of em dashes in a single sentence, and not use them in adjoining sentences unless you are trying to show traits of a scatterbrained or highly distractible character.

I can still remember the first time I saw an em dash used.  I was a preteen or young teen reading John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage and noticed em dashes all over the text.  They were new to me, so I tried to figure out why they were used.  Since I associated JFK with glamor and style, I associated those attributes to em dashes as well. In the ensuing years, I have used — perhaps overused — em dashes, thinking of them as a witty, polished writing tool, much like a semicolon.




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