Dash It All!

Where would writers be without the helpful em-dash?

A dash, the style manuals helpfully state, indicates a break in the sentence, or (as part of a pair) encloses a parenthetical statement.  In practice, this makes the dash an informal replacement for several other pieces of punctuation:  parentheses, the colon, the semicolon, even ellipses.

It’s the protean nature of the dash that presents the greatest hazard.  Being so useful in a variety of different situations, it’s vulnerable to overuse.  A writer who isn’t careful can end up with a page full of dash-filled sentences, which lends a sort of panting urgency to the prose that usually isn’t wanted.  The best general advice I ever read on the subject was a stricture I encountered in a media fanzine back in the pre-internet era, and it ran something like this:  “If you use more than two dashes in one paragraph, you aren’t allowed to use any at all in the next.  So there.”

There’s a higher-level version of the same problem, involving semicolons.  There are some writers — I plead guilty here — who like semicolons entirely too much.  If I’m not careful, I can find myself committing a three-sentence paragraph where all three sentences feature independent clauses joined together by semicolons.  At that point, I have to force myself to take an axe to at least two of those sentences and break them back up into their component clauses.

Sometimes, though, I cheat, and replace one of the semicolons with a dash instead.

There’s also a shorter version, the en-dash, but its uses are much more restricted and frankly, if you use a hyphen nobody’s going to call you on it. Well, maybe the typesetter, but unless you’re being your own desktop publisher, you aren’t likely to ever meet him or her.

I believe the zine reviewer in question was noted Star Trek fan Paula Block, but at this remove I can’t be sure. Whoever it was, I owe her for the words of wisdom.

6 thoughts on “Dash It All!

  1. I can restrain myself with the dashes, but I’m just as devoted to the semicolon as you are, and I have to be just as ruthless when I edit. And in fiction, I’m not too bad with the parentheses, but in a blog post? I have to force myself to go back and weed them out.

    I’ve been told I speak in parentheses. I don’t doubt it.

  2. Yeah, I’m an m-dash addict. I have stories from my high school creative writing class that have notes like “you can use dashes for parens and semicolons, but not both in the same sentence.”

    I’ve gotten a little better since then, but I do still love my dashes.

  3. It might be a rule unique to British English, however I was taught the em-dash is not interchangeable with other punctuation. It is used instead of them if the clause is a negation or restriction of the main sentence whereas they are used where it is a clarification or expansion. For example:

    It is a well known fact – except among those who have taken the time to research the subject – that….

    And not:

    It is a well known fact (except among those who have taken the time to research the subject) that….

    I certainly use both many semi-colons and many dashes; it is possible this formality with dashes keeps my usage of each within acceptable limits – except when dealing with Microsoft who seem to believe semi-colons are incorrect in all circumstances.

  4. Punctuation is so variable — by language, by region, even by publisher — that a lot of time the only good advice seems to be “pick a style and be consistent” and “don’t overdo the special effects.”

    (And let the copyeditor worry about the edge cases.)

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