The Em Dash and I—A Love Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Happy Valentine’s Day! Since love is in the air, I thought I’d write about my own passionate affair. Don’t worry. My wife knows all about it, and doesn’t mind, though she wonders at my ardent attachment. “It’s just a punctuation mark,” she says.

“Not just any!” say I. “It’s the most versatile of the lot. It’s clean and strong. It clarifies and emphasizes without being boorish. Do not belittle my love of the em dash!”

Or something to that effect.

So yes, I confess. My heart is enraptured by the em.

Now, there are actually three types of dashes you need to know about. While technically not a “dash,” the hyphen is a line like the other two. It’s the shortest of the bunch because it is used only to connect words that have a combined meaning. Like: He’s a two-time champion.

A bit longer is the en dash. The main thing to know about the en is that it’s primarily used to join numbers, as in “The Dodgers beat the Reds, 3–2.” Or, “Robert Benchley (1889–1945) was an American humorist.” Many writers use a hyphen or an em dash for this, and shouldn’t.

By the way, the names en and em come from the days of movable type. An en dash was determined to be the approximate length of the typeface n. An em dash was the length of the m. (Frankly, I think it would have saved a lot of confusion if these dashes had been named Marge and Sylvia.)

Now, on to the star of my article, the em. It is a crisp, efficient dash used to set off a word or clause for emphasis or additional information. I use it instead of a parenthesis or a colon. (Those of you have who been longtime followers of TKZ know of my disdain for the semicolon in fiction. I am with Vonnegut on that score. “Here is a lesson in creative writing,” he wrote. “First rule: Do not use semicolons…All they do is show you’ve been to college.”)

(Astute readers will note that in the above paragraph, and this one, I use a parenthesis. That’s because, when it comes to punctuation, I draw a distinction between fiction and nonfiction. The parenthesis and semicolon are useful in nonfiction. I use them myself, just not in fiction.)

Actually, I may have used a parenthesis on occasion in my short fiction. Stephen King loves parentheses. He uses them as a device to get into the head of the viewpoint character or to drop in a little backstory. Here, for example, is a clip from one of his early short stories, “Children of the Corn.”

He stopped, looking directly into the corn. He found himself thinking (anything to untrack from those rags that were not rags) that it must have been a fantastically good growing season for corn.

And this:

His mind was elsewhere, listening to the dull buzz of a cicada burrowing into one of the nearby elms. He could smell corn, dusty roses, and fertilizer. For the first time they were off the turnpike and in a town. A town in a state he had never been in before (although he had flown over it from time to time in United Airlines 747s) and somehow it felt all wrong but all right.

Here’s one where King uses parenthesis and em dash both!

While she picked at the knots (her face was set in a peculiar way—expressionless but tight-mouthed—that Burt remembered his mother wearing when she pulled the innards out of the Sunday chicken), Burt turned on the radio again.

(Down in the comments, tell me what you think of King’s use of parentheses. It may help him sell more books.)

Sometimes I use the em dash instead of a comma. Here’s an example from Romeo’s Hammer:

So what about the lack of clothing? A love scene gone bad? Someone who had been with her while she was drinking—or drugging—herself? Her condition when I found her was such that she had to have come from one of the beach houses. Access to the sand is cut off all along PCH. She didn’t wander down from the street.

I used the em dash here because I wanted more emphasis on the word drugging than a comma setoff would create.

The other major use for the em dash is interruptions in dialogue. Please do not use ellipses for this! Those three dots are used for a voice trailing off by speaker’s choice.

“I don’t know, Stan, let me …”

Stan turned around. “Let you what?”

The em dash shows an interruption, which should immediately be followed by the other speaker’s words (or an action which cuts off the sentence, like a bullet through the heart). Again from Romeo’s Hammer:

“That’s a fine achievement,” I said. “You do know that kara is an ancient word that means to cleanse oneself of evil thoughts, and to be humbly receptive to peace and gentleness. Yes? You are therefore abusing your own discipline. That’s not a good way to—”

“Shut it!”

The em dash is also used for self-interruption:

“Slow down,” Jack said. “You’re driving too—stop! Look over there.”

In doing a little research, I was delighted to find that em dash love is so pervasive that it was even covered in the NY Times:

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.

***

[W]riter Laura van den Berg confessed in her own tweet that, “after years of resistance,” she had fallen “into headlong love with the em dash. I love the way it can create the feeling of a fractured/incomplete/interrupted line or thought.”

Technical notes:

Don’t put a space before or after the em dash. Only newspapers using the AP Stylebook do that, and only because columns of newsprint (remember newsprint?) are easier to justify with the spaces.

In Word for Mac, you make a hyphen by typing the hyphen key. (You’re welcome.)

En dash is option+hyphen.

Em dash is shift+option+hyphen. (Also, Word will convert two hyphens into an em automatically).

For PC users, things are a bit more involved. You may consult this article.

Okay, TKZers, over to you. Do you love the em dash? Is there another punctuation mark you’d like to send a Valentine to?

+17

How and When to Use HYPHENS, DASHES, & ELLIPSES

by Jodie Renner, editor and author    Captivate w Silver decal2

Ellipses vs. Dashes; Hyphen, Em Dash and En Dash

In my editing of fiction manuscripts, I often find writers using ellipses (…) where they should use dashes, or hyphens instead of dashes, etc. Here’s a brief run-down on the use of these punctuation marks.

A. Ellipsis (…) or Dash (—)?

In fiction,

An ellipsis (…) is used to show hesitation:

“What I meant is… I don’t know how to begin…”

or a trailing off:

“She came with you? But I thought…” She paused.

“You thought what? Come on, spit it out.”

(Also, usually in nonfiction, indicates the omission of words in a quoted text.)

A dash (—), also called em dash, is used to show an interruption in speech:

“But I—”

“But nothing! I don’t want to hear your excuses!”

or a sudden break in thought or sentence structure:

“Will he—can he—find out the truth?”

The dash is also used for amplifying or explaining, for setting off information within a sentence, kind of like parentheses or commas can do:

“My friends—I mean, my former friends—ganged up on me.”

Note: To  use dashes this way, make sure that if the information between the dashes is taken out, the rest of the sentence still makes sense and flows properly. Also, avoid three dashes in a sentence. Rewrite the sentence to avoid that.

B. Hyphen vs. En Dash vs. Em Dash:

The en dash is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash (the normal dash).

A hyphen (-) is used within a word. It separates the parts of a compound word: bare-handed, close-up, die-hard, half-baked, jet-lagged, low-key, never-ending, no-brainer, pitch-dark, self-control, single-handed, sweet-talk, user-friendly, up-to-date, watered-down, work-in-progress, etc.

Dashes are used between words.

An en dash (–) connects numbers (and sometimes words), usually in a range, meaning “to”: 1989–2007; Chapters 16–18; the score was 31–24 for Green Bay; the London–Paris train; 10:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.

An em dash (—) is used to mark an interruption, as mentioned above (“What the—”), or material set off parenthetically from the main point—like this. Don’t confuse it with a hyphen (-). In fiction, the em dash almost always appears with no spaces around it. Some authors, publishers, and companies prefer an en dash with spaces on each side of it for this: ( – ). This is more common in nonfiction.

C. How to Create Em Dashes and En Dashes:

Em dash (—): Ctrl+Alt+minus (far top right, on the number pad). CMS uses no spaces around em dashes; AP puts spaces on each side of em-dashes.

En dash (–): Ctrl+minus (far top right, on the number pad)

D. Advanced Uses of the Dash (Em Dash):

According to the Chicago Manual of Style (6.87), “To avoid confusion, no sentence should contain more than two em dashes; if more than two elements need to be set off, use parentheses.”

Also, per CMS, “if an em dash is used at the end of quoted material to indicate an interruption, a comma should be used before the words that identify the speaker:

“I assure you, we shall never—,” Sylvia began, but Mark cut her short.

But: “I didn’t—”

No comma after it here, as that’s the end of the sentence, and no tagline.

The Chicago Manual of Style also says (6.90) that if the break belongs to the surrounding sentence rather than to the quoted material, the em dashes must appear outside the quotation marks: “Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to see it.”

Using an em dash in combination with other punctuation:

CMS 6.92: “A question mark or an exclamation point—but never a comma, a colon, or a semicolon, and rarely a period—may precede an em dash.

All at once Jeremy—was he out of his mind?—shook his fist in the officer’s face.

Only if—heaven forbid!—you lose your passport should you call home.

Do you have any questions or comments about the use of ellipses, dashes, and hyphens that I can help you with? Please mention them in the comments below.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-Fire up Your Fictionwriting guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. Jodie recently organized and edited two anthologies for charity: Voices from the Valleys and Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers, created to help reduce child labor in Asia. You can find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, at www.JodieRenner.com or www.JodieRennerEditing.com, and on her blog Resources for Writers.

+14

Daniel Hadley is Down in Somerville

This submission for critique has no title, but I think it shows promise. The central character has appeal. Catch my comments on the flip side.

Excerpt
“Daniel’s in stable condition, but he’s been shot.”

I lay in bed, propped up on one elbow, the cell phone digging into my ear. I didn’t even remember it ringing. Had I passed out drunk while talking to someone? But every light in my bedroom was off, save for the pale green LCD of the alarm clock: 1:45 AM. Then the part of my brain that makes sense of words – the part that I normally can’t shut up when I’m trying to go to sleep – kicked in. “Shit,” I said, sitting upright.

“He’s stable, like I said. They’re monitoring him at Mass General.”

“Right,” I answered. “How long?” But the phone went dead.

“Fuck,” I repeated. Then I hung up and got out of bed. I padded across to the closet to pull some jeans off a hanger and yesterday’s bra out of the hamper. A tanktop and a ratty Redskins sweatshirt completed the ensemble. Ninety seconds after getting off the phone I was out the door.

Somerville’s a dense town, so I had to walk a block to where I’d parked my car. The autumn air sobered me up enough to realize I didn’t have a plan just yet. There was one detail I could check, of course. Fishing my phone back out of my pocket, I called Daniel. “Hey, this is Daniel Hadley. I’m either on the phone or -” Damn it. Is there anything longer than a voice mail greeting when you’re trying to reach someone live?

“Daniel, hey, it’s Mara,” I began. “It’s 1:50 A.M. on, uh, Tuesday. Listen, I just got this really strange call that said you were … um. Please call me as soon as you get this, if you’re okay. If you’re not, well …”

I cut myself off there, shutting the phone and fumbling for my keys. I hadn’t fully processed the news yet (Daniel had been shot; holy hell; fatigue and shock kept shoving that detail to the back of my mind, like a rookie hockey player hitting the boards).

Comment Summary on “No-title” Story:

Generally I like the voice of this woman character. She comes across as a no nonsense person who could sustain a reader’s interest with the uniqueness of her character’s attitude and her low key fashion sense. And her attachment to alcohol could prove to be interesting as baggage. But rather than starting out with the dialogue line (as I explain my objection below), I might start out with how this woman feels getting the shock of the cell phone ringing her out of her drunken stupor. No one likes getting calls in the middle of the night. It’s a relatable moment most readers will understand. These calls are NEVER good news. And establishing this character from that moment might also help in creating her “voice” and her attitude more fully from the get go.

This is a personal preference, but I wouldn’t begin a novel with a dialogue line because it feels too much like the start of any other scene. An intro dialogue line into a scene can be effective and I’ve done it, just not for the start of a book. And whoever is speaking needs to be identified in some fashion, even if it’s just someone generic, like “dispatch.” Try to ID the person as soon as you can after the dialogue.

And speaking of identification, when you write in first person, you need to ID the speaker’s gender in some way as soon as you can. The reader will get an idea in their head—like I did that the narrator is a man—who is a cross dresser, when he reaches for yesterday’s bra from the hamper. I’ve done this before too. (The name of my character was a gender neutral name and was supposed to be a teen girl. But when my beta reader read the passage, she thought it was a teen boy who was checking out another guy’s wranglers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it wasn’t my intention.) Once you write a first person POV story, you notice things to watch for. And gender at the start of a book is one of them.

I’m writing a YA book now where I have two teens speaking in first person. I identify them by using their names at the top of each scene and try to have one character per chapter where possible. It makes sense for this book and I like writing challenges.

I also wasn’t sure I understood Mara’s question – “How long?” Is this her entire question? If this was intended to be a question cut short, then add punctuation like a dash to indicate this. “How long—?” or “How long…?”

And if the line goes dead, it takes a while before anyone to notice, but in this scene, the character knows immediately. If the line goes dead, make it more realistic by her rambling until she hears dial tone and gets frustrated.

Also, if you have only one character in the scene, I would try to minimize the use of tag lines identifying her. You should ID the person on the phone, but after that, there isn’t a need to clutter the scene with unnecessary tag lines like ‘I answered, I repeated, I began.’ There are four tag lines in a short segment of a scene with only one character in it after the phone goes dead.

And finally the last paragraph. The punctuation seemed odd to me and pulled me from the story. I’ve never liked the use of semi-colons. Break apart the sentence into fragments if you have to, but resist the semi-colon, especially when the character has the informal attitude this one has. (What do the rest of you think about semi-colons—readers and authors? Copy editors try to put them in and I take them out, making other changes that are more my preference.) See James Scott Bell’s post on semi-colons HERE.

I also rarely use parenthesis, except in my YA books where it can be fun to use sparingly. I prefer em-dashes for emphasis, as shown below.

And the use of the metaphor on hockey—“…fatigue and shock kept shoving that detail to the back of my mind, like a rookie hockey player hitting the boards”—didn’t seem to fit when she was referring to such a serious event as someone getting shot. It makes her sound flip about something that should be more important to her. Also, she’s a Redskins fan AND a hockey fan? I’m sure this is possible, but in one short scene, it seems excessive. You may get more mileage if you made her a super fan of one sport when it comes to her metaphors, rather than spreading her enthusiasm over many.

Even though this scene could be written better, it shows promise with a compelling character voice. I would also consider starting the novel with something else that happens prior to this scene—like maybe Daniel’s shooting. If this is crime fiction, I like to start with a crime. And I’ve also found that you can always go back to write that action scene after you’ve started the book to get a feel for the story and its characters. It might help to know Daniel before you shoot him, for example. (Wow, that sounded awful.)

Any other helpful comments for this author?

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