The endless possibilities of writing are what excite me most. The notion that I can put a pen to the paper—or, more appropriately, fingers to the keyboard—and create something new and unique is why I find so much joy in it.
Sure, my writing for clients requires a commitment to brand standards, but a certain creativity exists nonetheless. It’s because of language—the words we use, the punctuation we choose—that I’m able embrace this creativity. I favor some techniques and bits of punctuation more than others, and if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that I already used one of my personal favorites four times so far in this blog post. I’m talking about none other than the em dash.
When it comes to writing, you just can’t beat a good em dash. According to The Elements of Style—my preferred writing guide—a dash (or em dash, as it’s also known) is a mark of separation that’s “stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.” Its versatility—and the countless opportunities we have to use it—are what make it so appealing. It’s a vital tool in a writer’s toolbox—one that shouldn’t be ignored.
Now, in case you’ve lost track, we’re up to nine uses of the em dash in just two paragraphs. Sure, it’s a versatile tool, but that can sometimes lead to over usage. The last thing a writer should be is repetitive, so it’s up to us to identify the proper time and place to use an em dash. The Elements of Style gives us some guidance, stating that we should, “Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.” Take the following sentences, for example:
His novels—especially those written in the 1960s—explored the human condition.
She proved her coach wrong—it wasn’t just her talent that made her a great athlete—it was her camaraderie with the team.
Now, although these sentences still make sense, the em dashes aren’t necessary. Let’s see what they look like with an alternative structure:
His novels, especially those written in the 1960s, explored the human condition.
She proved her coach wrong. It wasn’t just her talent that made her a great athlete, it was her camaraderie with the team.
So, before you shoot from the hip and throw the em dash into your writing, ask yourself a few questions: Will a comma suffice? Am I using an em dash just for the sake of using it? And most importantly, am I effectively communicating what I want to say? If you’re not, then you’re in trouble—big trouble.
By Nick Guadagnino