The em-dash

At Kill Zone Blog, this post by James Scott Bell: The Em Dash and I—A Love Story

Happy Valentine’s Day! Since love is in the air, I thought I’d write about my own passionate affair. Don’t worry. My wife knows all about it, and doesn’t mind, though she wonders at my ardent attachment. “It’s just a punctuation mark,” she says.

“Not just any!” say I. “It’s the most versatile of the lot. It’s clean and strong. It clarifies and emphasizes without being boorish. Do not belittle my love of the em dash!”

Well, I missed seeing this post before Valentine’s Day, but it’s funny, so hey, here it is now. I should say, I’m a fan of the em-dash, sure, but perhaps not quite this ardent. In fact, I often take an hour to go through a manuscript taking out dashes (and ellipeses and semicolons). (I know you may not be able to tell.)

Anyway, sure, I’m fine with letting Bell make a strong case in favor of the dash. Let’s see —

Oh, he’s dissing the semicolon. Well, he’s definitely wrong about that one, but no one can be right all the time. I’m in a forgiving mood. I’ll let that pass and move on …

Sometimes I use the em dash instead of a comma. Here’s an example from Romeo’s Hammer:

So what about the lack of clothing? A love scene gone bad? Someone who had been with her while she was drinking—or drugging—herself? Her condition when I found her was such that she had to have come from one of the beach houses. Access to the sand is cut off all along PCH. She didn’t wander down from the street.

I used the em dash here because I wanted more emphasis on the word drugging than a comma setoff would create.

Yes, that’s one good use of a dash.

The em dash shows an interruption, which should immediately be followed by the other speaker’s words (or an action which cuts off the sentence, like a bullet through the heart). Again from Romeo’s Hammer:

“That’s a fine achievement,” I said. “You do know that kara is an ancient word that means to cleanse oneself of evil thoughts, and to be humbly receptive to peace and gentleness. Yes? You are therefore abusing your own discipline. That’s not a good way to—”

“Shut it!”

The em dash is also used for self-interruption:

“Slow down,” Jack said. “You’re driving too—stop! Look over there.”

And yes again, there’s the other main use of a dash. Bell makes the point — everyone seems to feel this point needs to be emphasized — that an ellipsis is not appropriate to show that someone has been interrupted or has interrupted himself. This is so obvious that I’m not entirely sure why I seem to see that advice everywhere. Plainly an ellipsis shows that someone has let their words trail off in a hesitant or absent-minded way. For that, the dash is not appropriate. I haven’t specifically noticed writers mistaking one for the other, though it must happen (a lot, maybe?) considering that Bell and so many others feel they have to clarify that a dash shows interruption and an ellipsis shows trailing off.

Anyway, if you like dashes — or would like to see someone justify the use of dashes — this is a fine post, so click over if you have a minute.

I will add — as some of you may have surmised — I don’t like the look of em-dashes in Word files. I just don’t. In print or for that matter in Kindle files or whatever, sure, but in Word files, I greatly prefer en-dashes with spaces on each side of the dash. I don’t know why, but this is such a strong preference that I type manuscripts with space en-dash space and then convert to correct em-dashes at the end. If you’ve beta read or proofread a manuscript of mine, you have quite likely seen a version with the en-dashes. The very last things I do to a manuscript when I format it to create the final Kindle and KDP and Draft to Digital files include: right-and-left-justify, change dashes to the proper form, and change ellipses to the proper form.

My borrowed laptop’s crappy word processing program does not do em-dashes; it just does two hyphens, exactly like WordPress, as this post demonstrates. So right now I also have to remember to search and replace for double hyphens as well as en-dashes. ALSO, it doesn’t do smart quote marks. THAT is something I barely noticed in time when I formatted Sphere. I’ve added a note in my formatting checklist: search and replace to turn straight quote marks to smart quote marks. It would be pretty embarrassing to bring out a novel in which the quote marks are mostly smart, but switch to straight here and there where recent editing took place!

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1 thought on “The em-dash”

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever learned how to make my keyboard or Word make en- and em-dashes, there is no key for those, and I don’t think we ever learned about them in grammar lessons at school. Maybe Dutch just doesn’t use those?
    I’ve always used space – space (using the hyphen/minus-sign).

    Now you mention the uses, the interruption and self-interruption with the em-dash look right to me. All those other times where dashes are used without spaces around them look wrong to me, and the em-dash looks too long if there are spaces around it.

    I guess such finer details of punctuation are different in most of what I’m used to reading in Dutch :).

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