Got to dash

Is there any particular punctuation mark that you tend to use as a crutch? You know, that one written widget you rely on when you’re not sure what to use?

Everyone has one. My husband uses the ellipses with reckless abandon. In lieu of a comma, colon, semicolon, even a period, those three dots heavy-handedly pepper his text.

Mine is the em dash—hands down.

Laura Hale Brockaway of Ragan’s PR Daily dubbed the em dash the most chivalrous punctuation mark of all time. I’ll tell you why in a moment.

For those who don’t recognize it by name, the em (as in the letter m, also used as a measurement of print space) dash is the longer of two kinds of dashes, formed in type by typing two consecutive dashes on the keyboard, without any space on either end. In most word processing programs, it doesn’t appear until you type a space after the word following the em dash. It’s fun; try it. (Brockaway cautions her readers to not do it this way; however, my attempt at her suggested computer command fails.)

In most instances, in English anyway, the em dash is longer than—and has a different purpose from—the en (n) dash, its shorter single cousin, with a space on either side.

I like the em dash because it steps in—with with class and strength—when other forms of punctuation can’t quite stand up to the challenge. Brockaway calls it chivalrous because Eats Shoots and Leaves author Lynne Truss calls it “a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling.”

Used in lieu of a comma, a set of parentheses or, I dare say, a semi-colon, an em dash introduces an interruption for the purpose of a side explanation or a pause for emotion, as well as many other utile functions.

Here, read her piece about this mighty mark—she tells you everything you need to know about the em dash. If you enjoy a bit of drama, scroll down and read the comments. Someone accuses the em dash of bullying the semi-colon while another feels the en dash has been dissed. Good stuff.


Filed under All Things Wordish

9 responses to “Got to dash

  1. Very interesting reading, thank you. I blogged about the en dash and em dash a while ago, so this felt like a bit of a refresher course and it felt nice knowing what you were talking about. I love the way Lynn Truss writes. I’m going to go and read some of your other blogs now.

  2. Oops I meant to spell it ‘Lynne Truss’

  3. Katherine

    All hail the em dash!

  4. Fun post!
    I actually have three crutch punctuation marks, all which can be used in roughly similar ways. In addition to the em dash, I use parantheses and elipses. While each of them has a specific and separate purpose, they all serve to “point out” or to direct the breating of the reader.

  5. Jo

    Singing my song!
    As you know, I’m a slave to the semicolon, with the em dash and ellipses following along.
    I try hard not to look down my nose at parentheses, quotation marks and exclamation points, but with little success. It’s my burden.

  6. Great post!
    It’s the ellipses, hands down, for me. Love that little touch of drama. Sometimes I even run amuck and add another dot.
    I’ve been known to use the exclamation point and the question mark together. I believe strongly in the power of friendship…or is that just another case of drama?
    Thanks for the giggles. I’m off to read some of your other posts.

  7. Wow. Just happend across your blog, and it will take me a while to get through all your language-related stuff. I’ve done a little myself here: if you’re interested.

  8. Of course I had to have a typo in that previous comment.

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