Diary of a User — The Em Dash 1


punctuation tights

Keep your punctuation tight(s).

Today copywriter, Tereece Clarke talked about writer’s crutches. These little stylistic things we do, writing ticks if you will, that we may come to rely a little too heavily on. Though Tereece made some very valid points, I have to say, when I looked at my own ticks, I decided that I don’t want to give them up.sentence diagram

For example, I am absolutely  crazy about compound sentences. I write a lot like I talk — stream of consciousness, filled with parenthetical asides and complicated sentence structures, peppered with commas. In journalism, this is a problem, where short, simple and concise sentences are heralded as the epitome of high craft. The same would be revered in the fiction works of those engaged in the art of minimalism.  But in blogging anything goes right? Well, almost anything.

I like to see my writing as a reflection of my voice as storyteller. Though I’ve had my grammar and usage called into question by stricter grammarians than I, (and even, on occasion, Grammar Nazis) I have also had many experts (Editors, copy jockeys and Best-Selling novelists alike) tell me that, though I may be breaking a rule or two, I’m “getting away with it.”

I suppose it would do me no harm to practice the art of the short sentence. But as Noah Lukeman, so deftly points out in “A Dash of Style,” differentiating between a long and short sentence all comes down to context. Not merely in relation to the sentences around it and the point you are trying to make but also in context of the characters within your piece and within the work as whole — and in comparison with other works in your field. Though Hemingway may be a master of brevity in sentence structure, Lukeman quotes the 122 word opening sentence of Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” as an example of long sentence mastery (though, some Editors disagree.)

I am, of course, no Faulkner. But I do enjoy a complex sentence or two and by comparison, I am positively a near mute when it comes to sentence length. You see — context.em-dashYou should also know, that I’m madly in love with the em dash. Not the en dash (though she’s useful enough.) No, the em dash is what I crave. Can’t— get — enough. Not sure I can give it up.When I don’t use it, I’m just jonesing to do it.  I started out experimenting with ellipses but you know what they say, “It’s gateway punctuation.”

It’s to the point that the em dash just isn’t enough, now. I find myself having to take it to the next level to get the same rush. I know it’s not right. I know there isn’t a grammarian in the world that could love me after this — but, I must confess — I’ve begun using tildes in place of the em dash. (A deep sucking sound has just escaped your lips. I know. It’s true. I said it.) I sometimes use a tilde to give my em dash a little swirl — a little ornamentation — a flavor it would not otherwise have. Not all the time. You know, recreationally, like only on Facebook or Twitter, man ~ where anything, sort of, goes.

The truth is, no one there really calls me on it. Everyone’s posts are filled with misspellings, forgotten capitalization, tense issues and poorly constructed or incomplete sentences. So who are they to judge. It’s a safe place to hide, amongst the other outlaws (like the exclamatory gals! or the CAPS LOCK LOSERS and the double-space-after-a-period junkies.)  Makes it easy to avoid facing my problem.

But today, Terreece made me take a good look at myself — I’m not saying I’m gonna quit. “My father didn’t raise no quitters.” But I have taken a look and I will admit —  I have a problem.

My name is Vanessa — and I’m an em dash user.

If you’d like to delve more deeply into grammar, check out the Quick and Dirty Tips that Grammar Girl has put together. It’s like a recovery program for the grammatically afflicted.


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One thought on “Diary of a User — The Em Dash

  • Véronique

    Not just an em dash user–a curly em dash user. Tell me you’re not going to find a way to use hearts to dot your I’s. 🙂

    I find that I use em dashes a lot in my blog. It seems to be a way of making something semi-parenthetical–an aside, but not to be skipped over. And sometimes I think we use them because we almost never use colons any more. Em dashes have taken over.

    Yes, I am a punctuation geek, but not a Nazi.