Today In Grammar: Em Dash War!

I walk into the office, sit down at my desk, check Twitter and, wha? There’s a half-dozen (well, three) tweets assailing the em dash. One of them pimps a grammar book by Roy Peter Clark. Two of them link to a sarcastic, em dash-filled article on Slate. Excerpt:

The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don’t you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won’t be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that’s not yet complete? Strunk and White — who must always be mentioned in articles such as this one—counsel against overusing the dash as well: “Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.” Who are we, we modern writers, to pass judgment—and with such shocking frequency—on these more simple forms of punctuation—the workmanlike comma, the stalwart colon, the taken-for-granted period?

And I like this bit:

The em dash isn’t easily formed on computers—it requires some special keystrokes on both PCs and Macs—and so I will admit that at least some of my bile comes from, as a copy editor, endlessly changing other writers’ sloppy em-dash simulacra (the double dash, the single offset dash) to the real thing.

“Sloppy em dash simulacra.” Now isn’t that the story of my working life.

Full thing here. Noreen Malone’s column is a must-read for grammar nerds (and for prairie dog movie listings writer Shane, who chucks em dashes wildly and aimlessly).

I love a well-used em dash but they should be used sparingly. There will be fewer of them next prairie dog thanks to this article. Hopefully I won’t unconsciously over-compensate with semi-colons.

Author: Stephen Whitworth

Prairie Dog editor Stephen Whitworth was carried to Regina in a swarm of bees. He's been with Prairie Dog since May 1999 and will die at his keyboard before admitting his career a terrible, terrible mistake.

4 thoughts on “Today In Grammar: Em Dash War!”

  1. Will vouch for Roy Peter Clark. I am constantly tempted to send his previous book, Writing Tools, to various people who assemble words for printed and online pages. Most of it is available FREE as a podcast anyway, so maybe I should just start passively aggressive sending people links to the appropriate Writing Tools episode…

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