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.