Allison's Most Frequent Edits: Part 1 - Dashes

Em dashes—the little lines you see flanking this here text—have become so rampant in modern literature, and I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why. These little tidbits of punctuation are so widely overused and misunderstood, that putting them at the top of this list seemed the most natural choice. What is the basis of our fascination with them? 

In Strunk and White's Elements of Style, the authors describe them as "stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses." They also say that dashes work best when ordinary punctuation seems inadequate. In other words, use them for special emphasis. 

Unfortunately, I see em dashes littering prose nowadays the way spent fireworks litter the street in front of my house after the 4th of July. Open any published book and count the number you see on a single page. It is sometimes staggering. They've become so ubiquitous that they've nearly replaced commas entirely, not to mention other appropriate forms of punctuation like colons, parentheses, semi-colons (cue the dreaded sigh), and simple periods. 

We won't get into the origins of the dash or how they differentiate between en dashes and regular ol' hyphens, as different style manuals and publishers will use either one for the same purpose. Let's just stick to the methodology. Writers often use em dashes because they want to write the way they speak. When someone tells a story aloud, they tend to interject additional information in mid-sentence, or they speak haltingly and with extra emphasis on certain parts to make sure we're getting the gist of what they're saying. It's completely natural, and it is the way our brains like to operate when dealing with massive loads of information that we have to streamline into something moderately coherent. 

The problem is, it's very difficult to read the way people talk. Constantly breaking up sentences with parenthetical content is jarring for the reader. It's akin to maddening 5 o'clock rush hour city traffic. Stop and go, stop and go. Furthermore, the dash is often used incorrectly. 

If you use them to insert related information in the middle of a sentence, the sentence must still make grammatical sense without it. In that way, the dash is exactly like a comma. For instance: John was not a fan of violence—the kind usually found in movies—not karate class. If you remove "the kind usually found in movies" from the sentence, we have: John was not a fan of violence not karate class. Not good. We have a run-on, but that is minor. We just don't know exactly what is modifying what. Those "nots" confuse everything.

Now, if you insist on keeping those infernal dashes in your sentence, the appropriate way to phrase it would be: John was not a fan of violence—the kind usually found in movies—though he enjoyed karate class. It still isn't perfect, but the thought is a bit clearer. We now understand John's preferences. 

How would we better phrase this without dashes? Now, let's not always see the same hands. ;-) John was not a fan of movie violence, though he enjoyed karate class. Now we not only have a clear thought, but it reads smoothly and it knocked out 5 unnecessary words, which is a bonus. 

As you read through your own work, look at those dashes as little stop marks and ask yourself whether your sentence demands them. First, is it even being used correctly in the grammatical sense? Does your sentence still make sense without the parenthetical info? If so, can you convey this thought and its intended emotion by using commas? If so, look for a more efficient way to combine your words so that the dashes can be eliminated altogether. Often you can link the content together via commas or semi-colons. 

Better yet, if the sentence appears long and unwieldy, consider breaking it up into two separate thoughts. Sometimes you can gain more emphasis by just having a couple of short, staccato-like sentences standing side by side. If that still doesn't work, look at your vocabulary. 

The strength of your idea usually hinges on the words you choose to express it rather than a punctuation mark. Rather than say: "She screamed—screamed loudly and forcefully—for help, and no one came," you can say "She shrieked for help, and no one came." You will not be able to remove all em dashes from your work, and I don't suggest that you do. Sometimes they are a dire necessity. I use them myself from time to time. It's just important to remember that the tools we often use to enhance our clarity can just as easily hinder it.
Blogged with the Flock Browser


  1. The em dash. I use them -- yes, I do! I overuse them -- yes, I do! I use them so much -- even when unnecessary -- that if I were to take them out of my writing to date they'd probably take up many pages.

  2. hehehe... I use them while blogging. Those and elipses... ;)

  3. This may sound a bit nuts, but I thought I knew how to use punctuation correctly until I started teaching essay writing to first year students and they came to me with questions about dashes and colons. I thought I had my grammar and style figured out but now I don't have a clue what half of the punctuation is supposed to do. What kind of a definition stems from words like "less formal than" or "more relaxed than".

    I find that I'm drawn to experimental prose and poetry that is taking issue with the conventions of writing and language, showing how unstable the language in fact is. Thanks for this post. Can you do active voice next?

  4. Jon,

    Thank you for commenting! Good question on the Strunk's loose definition of "less formal than," etc.. I think it is a bit vague, and I think that's probably intentional. All three forms of punctuation (the dash, parentheses, colon) seem to generally serve the same purpose. If you know how to use one, then the other can often be substituted. Which one you choose depends on what you are writing, and what the style format demands. A journalist, for instance, may scoff completely at this article. I like to think when it comes to this sort of punctuation that it should all be used in moderation. If people are inserting a lot of parentheticals into their writing, the question should be whether or not that is necessary, probably more so than the punctuation that denotes it. If our preceding clauses are strong enough, parenthetical statements are mostly unnecessary. Same can be said for present participial phrases, but I'll save that for another blog. :)

    In the meantime, I definitely plan on attacking the active/passive voice phenomenon for my next blog. Stay tuned!

  5. "Writers often use em dashes because they want to write the way they speak."

    Oh my, I am very guilty of writing the way I talk at first go. I self-edit though and very often my progress is hampered by my constant trips back up-screen to edit shit.

    I try to do the "write, just write without caring about spelling, punctuation or grammar" thing that everyone swears is the best way, but I just can't. The best I can manage is get my thoughts on the document as I might say them, but I have to go back almost immediately and tinker with them.

    I do do funky things with commas and dashes. I try to catch as many of them as I can in the second walk-through.

    Thanks for writing this, Allison. It's a great reminder. :)

    PS I love my Strunk and White!

  6. Thanks for the writing tip! I was one of those writers who used dashes too much, but now the dash has turned into periods...<<< Like this! I have a conversational tone when I write, so I'm working on it ;)