Grammar Workshop: The Em Dash {Part 3}

We’ve talked about when to use an em dash — and when not to.  We’ve also looked at alternatives to using the em dash.  Now it’s time to put it all together.

Filling Your Toolbox

As you can see, a good writer keeps his toolbox full of a variety of options so that he can always pick out the tool exactly suited to the task at hand. But where does he get these tools, and how does he know which is the right one to use in any given situation?

The best way to recognize good writing is to read good writing. Whenever you run across a particularly compelling sentence or paragraph, stop and look it over. Copy it. Try to figure out why it is so effective. By analyzing sentences as we did in the examples in the previous post, you can start to get a feel for the best uses of each punctuation mark.

As for your own writing, scrutinize it critically. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Did I choose the absolute best punctuation mark for the job?
  • Does the sentence say exactly what I intended?
  • Is it easy to read and understand?
  • Is it too choppy, too rambling, or just the right length?
  • Have I overused a particular punctuation mark?

For the ultimate test, read your work aloud and do a similar analysis:

  • Do the words sound right?
  • Do you naturally emphasize the sentence the way you intended?
  • Is the meaning clear?
  • Can you read the paragraph without feeling breathless at the end?

The best writers rarely get it right the first time. They are, however, extremely skilled at recognizing phrases that could be improved and making the necessary changes. So check your work carefully. Look over your tools from time to time and make sure than an em dash is the ideal choice.

And don’t forget to analyze good writing and try to understand how each punctuation mark is used. There is no surer way of becoming a master than by studying the masters.

  • There are two uses of the em dash in this selection from Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving.  How are the two em dashes used?  In each case, rewrite the sentence using a different form of punctuation.  Write an explanation of something using em dashes in the same way Irving did.
  • Read the first paragraph at the top of page 47 (it begins on the bottom of page 46) from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  How does Carroll use the dash?  Rewrite the sentence using a different form of punctuation.  Write a sentence of your own that uses the em dash in the same way Carroll did.

Further Investigation

Daily Grammar:  Dashes
Five lessons on the different ways to use dashes (answers included).

Hyphens, Dashes, and Parenthesis
One-page worksheet where student makes the corrections.  You might want to review the use of hyphens to complete the first part.

Answers to Suggestions Above

There is likely more than one answer here, but this is our stab at it.  Also, remember that writers do not sit down and think about how they will use the em dash.  They simply use the em dash as a tool to create.

  • The two em dashes in the selection from Rip Van Winkle are used for emphasis.  No other tool in the toolbox will create quite the same effect, and in the first case there really is no other option.  If the author was not trying to emphasize the phrase war, Congress, Stony Point, he could have used parentheses.
  • The em dashes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are used to mark a change of thought.  The author could have used ellipses or began an entirely new sentence set off with a period.  Of course, neither would have been as effective.

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