The Em-Dash

Those of you who have been around for a while and who pay attention to such things have probably noticed that I’m partial to—probably overly partial to1—the use of em-dashes. I no longer remember for sure how it started but it’s probably something I learned Rich Stevens who had a large influence on my early writing.

I used them in this blog even when—for reasons I still don’t understand—they didn’t render correctly in the RSS feed (despite being fine in the post itself). They’ve always seemed to me to be the perfect way of setting off those interstitial remarks that amplify but aren’t really part of the main flow of my thoughts.

Considering all this, I was delighted to see that Adam O’Fallon Price has posted a lovely paean to the em-dash. Price says that the em-dash is rarely used. That’s news to me, probably because I see so many of them in my own writing. Nevertheless, he says, it’s a beautiful and useful punctuation mark that conveys subtle distinctions in meaning from the comma, colons, and parentheses that it often replaces. He goes on to give several examples of their use and the added precision they bring to the writings of such people as Vladimir Nabokov, Donald Antrim, and Emily Dickinson.

All of this is outside of the usual Irreal purview, of course, but it seemed like a pleasant Sunday interlude, nicely set off by metaphorical em-dashes from our more routine subject matter.



See what I did there?

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  • Can you provide some examples of when you would use only commas, or only em dashes, or both, in a sentence?

    • jcs

      Just look around. Seriously, I don't have a formal rule for when to use them and I certainly don't know the official dicta from Miss Frump's Garden of Grammar for Children. My rule of thumb is that em-dashes set off the phrase more strongly than commas do but less strongly than parentheses. Unlike Price, I don't consider a colon a contender in all this. I don't always apply even this squishy guidance consistently.

  • Perry Metzger

    I'm an em-dash addict myself. I use them constantly in my writing. They convey something you just can't get with a parenthetical or a comma separated phrase. I've started using them even more often now that they exist as a distinct unicode code point and one can easily enter them in from the keyboard without using gross substitutes like "--"...