Grammar Workshop: The Em Dash {Part 2}

Before we start exploring the toolbox, take another look at the possible uses for em dashes mentioned in the previous post. We will take each situation in turn and examine some of the other tools that might work in each case.

Em Dash Use and the Alternatives

Use an em dash:

1. To precede a quote attribution.

There are not many options for punctuating a quote attribution. The em dash is the correct choice in this situation.

2. To set off a series in order to avoid excessive use of commas.

When dealing with a series within a sentence, two alternatives to em dashes present themselves:

  • Parentheses.
  • A complete sentence makeover.

Notice that commas are not an option. The whole reason we are considering using em dashes in the first place, if you recall, is to avoid muddying the sentence with a plethora of commas.

Take another look at the example sentence for #2. Suppose that Jules Verne had punctuated this sentence with parentheses:

When he breakfasted or dined all the resources of the club (its kitchens and pantries, its buttery and dairy) aided to crowd his table with their most succulent stores….

What do the parentheses imply about the phrase, its kitchens and pantries, its buttery and dairy? The reader’s eye almost skips over this information. If he is reading the sentence aloud, he probably mutters the phrase in an undertone. In other words, parentheses indicate to the reader that the information they contain is relatively unimportant.

The original em dashes, on the other hand, seem to give a certain dignity to the phrase they enclose. We can see at a glance what the resources of the club are, and therefore get an idea of the great privilege being bestowed on the subject of the sentence.

In a nutshell, then, the choice between em dashes and parentheses will hinge on the relative importance of the phrase in question. Important information goes within em dashes, details within parentheses.

Now what about the second option? Do we use an em dash or rewrite the sentence? Read the sentence in question, preferably aloud. It is stuffed with too much information? Does reading it leave you breathless? Then it probably needs to be rewritten. But if every part of the sentence is critical to understanding its meaning, you will probably want to use either em dashes or parentheses, as explained above.

3. To indicate an abrupt pause, interruption, or change of thought.

The next use of the em dash is to indicate pauses, interruptions, and abrupt changes of thought. Of course, there are other ways to signal this type of break, as well:

  • Ellipses.
  • Commas.
  • Semicolons.
  • Periods.

Let’s look at the sentence from A Christmas Carol again, this time substituting ellipses for em dashes:

Grammar Workshop: The Em Dash {Part 2}

“…My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house…mark me…in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!”

Obviously there are situations when this would work quite well. If the speaker were merely musing to himself or taking a moment to reflect on what he planned to say next, ellipses would convey the idea far more effectively than em dashes. In this sentence, however, Dickens probably chose em dashes because they could signal a sudden, heartfelt outburst of emotion.

Now let’s see what happens if we use commas:

“…My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house, mark me, in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!”

Not only does this devolve into a run-on sentence, the whole force of Marley’s warning is lost. The ominous words mark me! blend in with the rest of the sentence. The commas almost act as parentheses; in fact, parentheses would probably be more effective here because they would solve the run-on problem. Nevertheless, the warning would still come across as an aside. Asides have their uses, but this is clearly not one of them.

Now try substituting a semicolon for the second comma:

“…My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house, mark me; in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!”

For one thing, this results in two semicolons in one sentence—a repetition you don’t want without a good cause. Ignoring that, we can see that the “feel” of Dickens’s words has changed yet again. The semicolon checks the reader at the words mark me, creating a bit of emphasis we didn’t have with the commas. And yet there is continuity, too. We can feel ourselves leaning forward to catch Marley’s next words.

But note that this is a different sort of anticipation than we experienced with the em dashes. A semicolon tends to be a formal punctuation mark; we find ourselves more expecting a logical conclusion than a ghostly cry.

And now try making each portion of the sentence into a new sentence altogether:

“…My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house. Mark me! In life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!”

Now we have maximized the emphasis of the words Mark me! but not without losing a little of the flow of thought. The first two sentences seem a little choppier than they did before.

Again, there are times to use all of these marks of punctuation. There are times when we are not trying to give a strong warning as was Marley’s ghost. In these situations, we need to consider a milder form of punctuation. On other hand, there may be times when we need to break things up with periods to achieve maximum emphasis. It all depends on what we want to say.

4. To set off a word or phrase for emphasis.

Now for the final scenario, the example from Elements of Style. In this sentence, the em dash is being used for emphasis.

Here are a few of our other options:

  • A comma.
  • A period.
  • A colon.

Let’s take a look at what happens when we use a comma:

The rear axle began to make a noise, a grinding, chattering, teeth-gritting rasp.

The comma is obviously not a particularly emphatic option. It merely signals that what follows is an explanation of the kind of noise the rear axle was making. In other words, the proper role of the comma is connection, not emphasis.

Now suppose we break the sentence up with a period:

The rear axle began to make a noise. A grinding, chattering, teeth-gritting rasp.

This type of punctuating is much more emphatic, but it does result in the second sentence becoming a fragment. There are times when fragments are an acceptable and even powerful choice, but they must be used sparingly or the paragraph will seem choppy and disjointed. When in doubt, read the section aloud. Trust your ear to tell you if a fragment is the right choice or not.

Another common alternative used in this type of situation is the colon:

The rear axle began to make a noise: a grinding, chattering, teeth-gritting rasp.

The em dash and the colon are sometimes used interchangeably, but their roles are actually quite different. A colon is a formal punctuation mark. Its purpose is not to make the reader think or feel anything in particular. It simply announces what comes next and withdraws to the background. The em dash, on the other hand, is melodramatic by nature. Not content with conventional decorum, it leaves the reader leaning forward in his seat in breathless anticipation.

Again, each alternative has its uses. None should be used to the exclusion of all others.

Up next: Filling Your Toolbox

Additional Resources

Em Dash
Takes a look at the different punctuation marks the em dash can replace, and the resulting effect.

The Dash as Punctuation
Worksheet where students replace current punctuation with a dash.

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