Friday, August 30, 2019

Falling in love with the em dash

This recent Style column from the New York Times features several writers extolling the virtues of the em dash (a punctuation device so named because it's the longest of all dashes, taking up the same horizontal space as the letter "M").  As a piece of punctuation, the em dash has become especially popular today because it "lends itself to the rapid, fragmented pace of digital communication." Its popularity also rests on its versatility according to the writers consulted for the NYT column. The em dash can be used to visually represent an author's afterthought with respect to the main thrust of the sentence while other times it's the grammatical equivalent of a "fist pump." And because the em dash is not part of the old school fraternity of punctuation devices, some consider it the "bad boy" of grammatical techniques. Still others like it because it adds a "businessy" look to the text while still communicating an element of "breeziness."

The Em Dash Divides

Why do people care so much about a piece of — no offense — punctuation?


After the Oxford comma debate and the death knell of the period, the latest mark to define and divide us — breaking up our thoughts, adding emphasis to our convictions, alternately vexing and delighting readers — is the em dash.


For some writers, the em dash is a vice that their editors occasionally forgive but more often forbid. It has been duly cast as an alluring alternative to the comma, colon, semicolon and full stop in the “distracted boyfriend” meme.


The longest of the dashes — roughly the length of the letter “M” — the em dash is emphatic, agile and still largely undefined. Sometimes it indicates an afterthought. Other times, it’s a fist pump. You might call it the bad boy, or cool girl, of punctuation. A freewheeling scofflaw. A rebel without a clause.


Martha Nell Smith, a professor of English at the University of Maryland and the author of five books on the poet Emily Dickinson (the original em dash obsessive), said that Dickinson used the dash to “highlight the ambiguity of the written word.”


“The dash is an invitation to the reader to make meaning,” Dr. Smith said. “It can also be a leap of faith.”


Grammarians don’t necessarily see it that way. Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s “Comma Queen” and the author of “Between You and Me,” wrote in an email that the em dash “can be substituted for almost any other mark of punctuation — the comma, the semicolon, the colon, the period, a pair of parentheses, the quotation mark, even a bullet point in the making of a list.” Just don’t use more than two in a sentence, according to some experts.


The informal em dash also lends itself to the rapid, fragmented pace of digital communication. As such, it has begun popping up in texts, tweets and even Tinder messages.


“It’s this great piece of punctuation that gets at the emphasis of how people really talk,” said Rachel Holliday Smith, a reporter for The City and an active participant in em dash Twitter.


Cecelia Watson, the author of “Semicolon,” said that it has a kind of “urgency to it, almost like a little arrow that’s missing its arrowhead. It has that businessy but also breezy look to it. Nobody really gets intimidated by a dash.”


Which is why the em dash appears in so many contexts: lyrical fiction, news briefs, movie titles. It can sit at any table in the cafeteria. Whereas the hyphen and en dash (a midlength dash, roughly the length of the letter “n,” commonly used to indicate range) have specific use cases, the em dash contains multitudes.

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Continue reading here.


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