Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Setting Off Text for Attention and Meaning—The Visually Rhetorical Em-Dash

Thursday’s Rhaw Bar: A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law—exploring ideas, theories, strategies, techniques, and critiques at the intersection of rhetoric and legal communication.

Today’s Rhaw Bar returns to the rhetorical strategy of setting-off text as a way focus a reader’s attention and create meaning. In my post from a month ago, I described how using lists in legal writing employs visual rhetoric strategies to both stack-up and set-off important information. In this post, I return to the concept of setting off information, this time through a punctuation mark: the em-dash.

In his 2006 book, The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, Richard Lanham argues that “attention is the commodity in short supply” in an information economy. Legal writers know this all too well; they have an ethical duty to keep a reader’s attention focused on the content of complex legal documents. But busy legal readers are inundated with more information than they can possibly digest, have access to that information at speeds faster than ever, and are likely subjected to more distractions from reading on screens that are animated with competing demands on the reader’s attention. In a digital world, the legal writer’s need to point the reader toward important information is more critical than ever.

A punctuation mark can be an efficient and effective way to visually call a reader’s attention to an important point and to shape the meaning of the text it punctuates. An underused punctuation mark with visual rhetorical impact for attention-getting is the em-dash. When used appropriately—and sparingly—the em-dash is an easily implemented, powerful visual rhetoric technique for legal writing.

Em-dashes typically are made by typing two hyphens between two words with no spaces between any of the characters. Remember that a hyphen (-), which connects compound words and modifiers (among others) like em-dash, absent-minded, or mother-in-law, is not an em-dash. An em-dash—appearing on either side of this text—is at least twice as long.

An em-dash visually separates (1) a phrase or clause within a sentence or (2) information at the end of a sentence from the rest of the sentence. When a pair of em-dashes are used within a sentence, they typically take the place of commas or parentheses; when a single em-dash is used toward the end of a sentence, it typically takes the place of a colon or semi-colon.

Em-dashes take advantage of both novelty and white space to draw the reader’s eye to text that either follows a single em-dash or lies between em-dashes. Used sparingly, em-dashes have novelty; readers will notice them and ask, “I wonder what this is about?” In addition, an em-dash creates more white space around text than that created by a comma, semi-colon, or colon, visually highlighting the selected information and causing the reader to notice it. While commas, parentheses, semi-colons, and colons also set-off information, they do so in a less forceful and attention-grabbing way. The em-dash, on the other hand, is more assertive and commanding—hey! this text is important!

An em-dash, however, does more than just call attention to text; the em-dash also provides a clue for the reader about how to give meaning to the sentence as a whole. The em-dash is a visually persuasive framing device; the em-dash helps the writer select a dominant meaning for the sentence while deflecting other meanings that are available.

Take for example this sentence from a legal argument in a case where Jones is arguing that Jones’s marriage to Smith should be annulled because the marriage took place while Jones was under duress:

Smith sent Jones an email the day before the wedding threatening to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.

This sentence has essentially three pieces of information:

  • Smith sent Jones an email.
  • The email threatened to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.
  • This email was sent the day before the wedding.

In the sentence above, all three pieces are expressed in a way that makes the ideas contained in them roughly equal in importance. That is, the frame of the sentence is balanced evenly, all of the ideas in the sentence share the same importance, and the reader is free to decide which parts of the sentence to give more or less attention.

But notice what happens to the sentence’s meaning when one of the pieces of information is set off with em-dashes:

Smith sent Jones an email—the day before the wedding—threatening to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.

Now, by using em-dashes, the writer causes imbalance in the sentence’s frame, visually setting off what the writer wants the reader to notice: the timing of the threatening email. The em-dashes guide the reader about how the sentence is meant to be read; the timing of the email is the most important information. The em-dashes help prime the reader to expect that Jones’s duress argument will be stronger because of the e’mail’s timing. By using em-dashes, the writer deploys dramatic interruption to call attention to important information and to shape the meaning of the sentence. And this is accomplished with only punctuation.

Notice what happens to the sentence if the writer wants to emphasize the content, not the timing, of the email:

The day before the wedding, Smith sent Jones an email—a threat to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.

Here, the em-dash sets off the text at the end of the sentence. Visually, the single em-dash acts almost like an arrow, pointing the reader toward what the writer wants to be the most important information. Structuring the sentence this way places the reader’s attention on the threatening email’s content.  Instead of being primed to focus on a timing argument, the reader is primed to focus more on the threatening language. By moving the em-dash to call attention to a different part of the sentence, the writer changes the meaning of the sentence for the reader.

While legal writers should use em-dashes to draw attention and to help create meaning, writers should be careful not to overuse them. Overuse causes em-dashes to lose their dramatic visual impact. Think of em-dashes like the salt on the top of a salted caramel. A little bit of salt enhances the sweet flavor, making the candy more satisfying; too much salt ruins the whole thing.

Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law and in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. She is the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Legal Communication. The Institute’s mission is to study legal communication issues and provide programming and training that improves legal communication skills. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach Dr. Davis at

Appellate Advocacy, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink


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