Death of the Em Dash?

Or, Why I Will Never Give Up This Bad Habit

Never, never, never, I will not give up the em dash—even though I probably overuse it.

em dashEm dashes are not hyphens. They are not used to connect two words, but rather to connect two different thoughts, and they are longer than hyphens. I used one in the paragraph above, see if you can find it. 🙂

This article in Slate calls for an end to the use of the dash, saying it’s unnecessary and (horror of horrors!) a mark of poor style. (Oh boy, I better go back and edit all my blog posts, before my readers think I’m some kind of caveman). Though the author of the article does quote  Strunk and White as saying, “Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.” So I maintain the other punctuation marks are usually inadequate.

Commas are too short of a pause, and usually cause comma splices when you use them to connect ideas.

Periods, followed by capital letters, are too harsh and abrupt. Anyway, if I used these instead of dashes I’d have millions of tiny sentences littering my page, instead of flowing paragraphs.

Semicolons look too ridiculous and formal (Look, everyone! I know how to use semicolons properly!) I think they are only proper in academic writing, or if your fiction is a certain kind of stiff writing style.

I overuse ‘…’ too, so what can I do but interchange those pauses with dashes? After all, some pauses happen because the character is your story trails off, which needs a ‘…’, but some pauses happen because the character is cut off, and an em dash (—) is prefered for that.

What about you? Do you like using an em dash, or is there another piece of punctuation you overuse/misuse?

UPDATE: I have replaced all the en dashes in the above paragraphs with the proper em dashes. Yes, there is a difference. Half a millimeter of difference. 🙂 Interestingly enough, some typographers argue for the use of an en dash flanked by spaces instead of using em dashes. Typographers will argue it looks better—editors and grammarians probably will not. (See here for more info)


Filed under On Writing

9 responses to “Death of the Em Dash?

  1. I use the crap out of em dashes, ellipses, and semicolons. Most of these got weeded out of my thesis, but I’ll use lots of them in my blog posts — especially since those are usually published on first draft.


  2. wendythecactus

    i love love love looooooooooove the em-dash. it is my favourite punctuation mark! as a result, my essays come out sounding too “punchy”–something my professors don’t seem to like very much. i guess they want subtlety. HOWEVER, just to be super nitpicky, im fairly certain that there should be NO spaces before or after the em-dash. when you type it, you double normal dash it (like so: –) and microsoft word does the rest (i.e. conjoins them into a super long dash of awesome grammatical fun.)


    • Microsoft Word changes it to an em dash if you put a space before and after it as well. I’ve never tried typing a double normal dash… but I wouldn’t be surprised if Word formats it properly either way you type it.


  3. I say ‘Make Your Mark!’ – with Em Dash. Just don’t criticize my over use of parenthetical phrases.


  4. jennarosemc

    I like this entry, but the problem is that you’re actually using the en dash, and not the em dash. The shortened line and the spaces between the punctuation and the words constitute an en, whereas an elongated dash with no spaces is an em. Dashes are great, though!


    • Thanks for clearing that up! Since I wrote this post, I’ve realized there are more types of dashes than I realized. I should probably add an update to this post 🙂


  5. It’s going to be ending of mine day, except before finish I am reading this enormous post to improve my know-how.


  6. Pingback: Abusing Punctuation: The Ellipses… | Stories and Stuff

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