The em dash is a bit of a jerk — replace it whenever possible

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Unless — and I admit this is possible — you’re trying to annoy the reader, try not to fall in love — or even in like — with the em dash.

So many manuscripts I edit suffer from inflammation of the em dash — it’s rampant — as if these little buggers multiply like cockroaches. Writers with sophisticated — and complex — thinking just seem to have a lot of connected things to say — the em dash allows them to connect those thoughts without working too hard on what the connection actually is. (If you listen closely, you can hear me mutter, “Why, I oughta —”)

What — in the name of all that is holy — accounts for the popularity of this mark?

People — and by people I mean writers of all kinds — just can’t finish a thought without interrupting themselves. It’s a modern — as well as ancient — habit. It makes your prose look as if it has the measles — and makes it read as if you’re on a train that stopping and starting with a jerk every few seconds.

I blame the Internet — why not blame it for everything, I say.

We used to write sentences, end them, and write other sentences — but now sometimes we just trail off — and other times we just string phrases together — and it’s all just — I don’t know — stream of consciousness, man. The em dash is the sophisticate’s way to ramble aimlessly — where the novice just uses an ellipsis (. . .), the “writer” says, “Ah, I’ll use an em dash.”

It — to be perfectly frank — doesn’t have the desired effect. It’s just an — ahem — interruption. And putting speed bumps in the reader’s way interrupts the fluid experience of reading — which you may think of as “flow.”

If you’re using Microsoft Word, you can lay down an em dash with two hyphens in a row — the software changes them into a dash automatically, but that doesn’t make it any easier to read.

What to write instead —

While writing with too many em dashes is a common affectation — it’s easy to fix.

Two sentences that stand on their own deserve their own endings — just use a period. As shown below — see how much better it reads?

Two sentences that stand on their own deserve their own endings. Just use a period.

Don’t be afraid to use a semicolon — it’s effective for two loosely connected sentences, as shown below:

Don’t be afraid to use a semicolon; it’s effective for two loosely connected sentences.

Interpolated, interrupting phrases — such as this one — are fine with commas, especially if they’re not too long; if they’re longer — and from my experience, sometimes they’re more of an extended ramble than an interrupting phrase — fearlessly use parentheses. Or — you could try this — just take the silly phrase out altogether.

Interpolated, interrupting phrases, such as this one, are fine with commas, especially if they’re not too long; if they’re longer (and from my experience, sometimes they’re more of an extended ramble than an interrupting phrase) fearlessly use parentheses. Or just take the silly phrase out altogether.

As for the dash at the end of a sentences, an ellipsis is more effective if you’re indicating something trailing off —

As for the dash at the end of a sentence, an ellipsis is more effective if you’re indicating something trailing off . . . .

Don’t dash off . . .

Like so much in writing, the em dash is a matter of editing. It’s fine to sprinkle them throughout your first draft, just take out as many as you can as you self-edit later on.

As your editor — and a long-suffering editor at that — I can take most of them out for you. But trust me, you can do it yourself, and your writing will be better for it.

5 responses to “The em dash is a bit of a jerk — replace it whenever possible

  1. You got me. I love em dashes but try not to use them as excessively as some. The worst is seeing a bunch of i.e.’s, e.g.’s, et al.’s, and em dashes.

    Talk—about—confusing.

    Nothing wrong with short, punchy sentences. It’s amazing how much using them in writing and speaking makes you stand out among colleagues.

  2. This is a hilarious way to make your point about em dashes–at least to this reader. Is the en dash any better?

    One thing I have to mention though, my millennial aged kids have informed me that using an ellipsis is sort of like a big F-U to the reader. An example was if they ask a colleague if they want to do something and the person writes back, “Sure…” They take this to mean “I guess as I have nothing better to do.”

    Have you run into that?

    1. The en dash is a bit of a weird mark. It’s not used as punctuation in the way that commas, colons, and periods are. It has specific uses, for example, in ranges of numbers (10-12 pages) or scores (Red Sox beat Blue Jays, 12-3) or between words to indicate “versus,” (the left-right polarization in American politics).

      Ad for the ellipsis, I can see your kids’ point in texts, but it doesn’t have that same connotations in a longer piece of prose.

  3. I’m no accomplished writer. But I do use em dash now and then. After reading your advise, I am a bit confused. The

    Grammar Girl offers a different viewpoint: “This is surprising considering that this punctuation mark is highly versatile and a favorite of skilled writers. It can add a spice—or a dash, if you will—to a sentence by adding emphasis to certain words and phrases.” (https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/when-to-use-and-not-use-an-em-dash).

    And, so does Grammarly: “It’s not difficult to understand why. Like the utilitarian knife, em dashes are versatile tools. Once you find out about these handy dashes, you may fall in love with them too.” https://www.grammarly.com/blog/why-you-should-love-the-em-dash/)

    Could you please help me with some examples when to use em dash?

    Thanks.

    1. All the examples I used in the text are legitimate uses of an em dash. There’s nothing ungrammatical about them.

      It’s the frequent, repeated overuse that I’m railing against. Just get rid of most of them and you’ll be better off.

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