Behold, the overused, little understood em dash. It is straight, proud and horizontal — the very embodiment of a lazy writer sure that its use makes his prose sound more magnificent in the ear.
I saw on one of our writers speak of the em dash on social media the other day and it reminded me how much I overuse it. From the bible (also known as Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style:”)
Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.
Who are you to call the venerable comma inadequate? So when do you use this long hyphen thing? To set off an abrupt break and to announce a long summary or appositive. Here are some examples from Elements:
- His first thought on getting out of bed — if he had any thought at all — was to get back in again.
- The rear axle began to make a noise — a grinding, chattering teeth-gritting rasp.
- The increasing reluctance of the sun to rise, the extra nip in the breeze, the patter of shed leaves dropping — all the evidence of fall drifting into winter were clearer each day. …
Too often we use it just because we want to put together thoughts that aren’t really a sentence. Such as something like this:
Billie Joe McAllister wanted to jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge — the darn fool.
If you are looking for a more charitable portion of ems in your diet, here is a more expansive view on the subject. It’s not wrong, just more liberal.
While we’re talking about the em, I suggest you make it appear longer than a hyphen. Here is something I didn’t know till just the other day. In Word, Indesign and on Google platforms anyway, shift+option+hyphen will make the character you want.
Em away, but please do so responsibly.