The Singular Beauty of the Em-Dash

Today in the New York Times' Opinionator blog there's a love letter of sorts from Ben Yagoda, author and professor of English at the University of Delaware, to the dash.

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Today in the New York Times' Opinionator blog there's a love letter of sorts from Ben Yagoda, author and professor of English at the University of Delaware, to the dash. Not the em-dash, in particular—we love you, sugar!—at least not at first, but an homage more generally to the plain old generic slice of punctuation that is oft combined barbarically as two to create a poor man's em-dash. Later in the piece, he acknowledges the superior form, but we'll get to that in a moment. He calls the dash—"the horizontal line formed by typing two hyphens in a row"—the most versatile piece of punctuation of all, unbound by the grammar rules that constrain the others. The em-dash is a special little thing of typographical beauty. It is a thing you will want to incorporate into your writing life. This marks a change of heart for the paper, or at least a diverging opinion from that of New York Times standards editor Philip Corbett, who wrote in 2011 reminding everyone to stop using so many dadgum em-dashes, for the love of God (we paraphrase).

So, how to use it, without seeming a fool? Yagoda advises on the few basic rules of the dash: don't put spaces before or after it (we agree); it's not the same thing as a hyphen (true); the dash can be used for a pause (one per sentence max, he says) or as a parenthetical (two per sentence, he suggests, though that as well as the aforementioned regularity would likely weary a reader, in our opinion). He adds that a dash might function in dialogue to indicate that a conversation drops off or perhaps is interrupted, but to indicate a change in any case. From the Elements of Style, "Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate."

Fans of the dash included Emily Dickinson, Yagoda mentions. We'd add R.L. Stine and Ben Zimmer to that list, two word aficionados we recently asked about their favorite punctuation marks. But as Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and, and language columnist for the Boston Globe, told us then, not everyone is such a lover of the em-dash: "When I revealed in a New York Times article last year that I'm overly attached to em-dashes, I was taken to task by the redoubtable John McIntyre, copy editor for the Baltimore Sun," he said. McIntyre told him, 'When you are tempted to use dashes, stop for a moment to consider whether you really want dashes there rather than commas or parentheses.'"

Like anything, you can overuse an em-dash, or use it (and its less popular cousin, the en-dash) incorrectly. It's debatable whether the versatility claims made by Yagoda are a point in the em-dash's favor—it's one of the marks most easily swapped for another mark; you could just as soon use a colon, an ellipses, parentheses, even a period followed by a new sentence in some cases of the em-dash. But that flexibility does make it popular. The more you see it, the more writers use it, the more, one would guess, others will be tempted to try their hand at this slightly off-the-standard form of punctuation. It's a little bit special, which means we're prone to like it more than we do a boring old question mark or the excessively employed exclamation point. Yagoda writes, "The Parenthetical Dash can stand in for a pair of commas or parentheses. The Pause Dash can take the place of a period, comma, semicolon — or nothing at all!" In short: The em-dash is making punctuation fun, and it's clearly having a moment. Just don't use it too much, because if you do, you will be held accountable and chastised for it—oh, you can count on that.

Yagoda also points out something key with the em-dash that's true with any kind of punctuation. It should be organic to the writing, or at least, to a sense of feel and flow of the writing, rather than simply scripted in because—oh, here, it's time to add an em-dash. He explains (and perhaps this is the biggest coup for the written cred of the em-dash, "Writers who deploy this mark comfortably and adeptly (rather than haphazardly) are conscious of the rhythm and dynamics of a sentence. A well-placed dash adds energy and voice." It's not about the mark, it's about the writers who use it. Maybe that's why we like it so much—or maybe that adoration is due to the em-dash's fantastic personality. And again, from The Elements of Style, "A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses." She's a lover—not a fighter.

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