Red Pen Diaries: A Dash of Drama

ImageWhen my 12-year-old nephew, Caleb, asked what I was going to write about for the next newsletter, I said: "The em dash." He confessed that he didn't know what that was. "Neither do most adults," I explained.

First, what the em dash is not: It's not a hyphen, as in "small-business owner" (not to be confused with "small business owner" — how small IS he?).

Nor is it an en dash, found here: "'Stairway to Heaven' appears on pp. 16–18 of your hymnals." Nor is it the dash in Morse code that is equal to three dots (at least I don't think it is).

The em dash, my friends, is the mother of all dashes, the big one, the one that's as long as the typeset capital letter "M." It's what we talk about when we talk about dashes, sometimes simply known as "a dash." (Two hyphens side by side [--] sometimes stand in for the em dash.)

I heartily agree with Grammar Girl's assessments that, " ... a dash is quite a dramatic punctuation mark ... A dash interrupts the flow of the sentence and tells the reader to get ready for some important and dramatic statement ... [Y]ou don't want to follow a dash with something boring or mundane."

(I agree with Grammar Girl about most things, by the way, but not her contention that " ... there are no spaces between the dash and the words around it." She concedes that this is a style choice but recommends "using no spaces." Since I worked strictly in media for a good 10 years before making my way to you, I came to rely on the Associated Press Stylebook, which states: "Put a space on both sides of a dash in all uses except the start of a paragraph and sports agate summaries." [Sports agate summaries?] I also like some visual breathing room — a dash of white space — around my dashes.)

Certainly, import and drama can be conveyed with a dash: "When she turned the page, she was stunned by what she read — the Buddha had died from food poisoning." But they're also quite handy in setting up the important or dramatic. Here are a few skillful examples of the latter (from Pope Brock's wonderful "Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him, And the Age of Flimflam").

  • "What an anticlimax — or so one might have thought."
  • "A great gulf yawned between the opposing parties — though a stranger might have needed some guidance at first distinguishing the two."
  • "Power gone, youth destroyed — but not yet, not quite yet."

Each one of those lines really makes you want to read the next one.

Then there's the middle-of-the-sentence, two-dash construction, which generally serves to bolster or elaborate. Here, a complete sentence is set off by dashes inside another sentence: "Some questioned how novel the treatment actually was — Pope Innocent VII in the fifteenth century had sought to revivify himself by drinking the blood of little boys — but Guillaumin's friends and family said it had done wonders for him."

"What an anticlimax — or so one might have thought."

That bit about Pope Innocent VII (also from "Charlatan") surely serves to bolster the writer's suggestion that the practice of "injecting small amounts of a young person's blood into an older person" was, by the early 1920s, old hat. In the following instance ("Charlatan" again), the dashes bookend an elaboration: "On the tables were butter in pound blocks and baskets of fresh rye; on the plates were the expected — Wiener schnitzel, apple pancakes — and the unexpected: eels in aspic, roast venison, and 'owls to order.'" Mmm ... owls to order.

Like much else about writing, dashes take practice. After a while, you get a feel for them and just know where they should go. But with such power comes some responsibility. I urge you to use dashes sparingly or risk diluting their impact. I prefer not to use more than one dash construction per paragraph. And take steps not to write yourself into a sentence you can't write your way out of. Even if you CAN write your way out of a paragraph-long sentence strewn with dashes, parentheses and commas, should you? In a word: no. It offends the eye and confuses the reader.

This dash through the dash isn't meant to be a comprehensive treatise on the topic. For that you might turn to my first love, the Chicago Manual of Style, which has more to say on the subject than I care to. But I do care to say that I hope this brief discussion makes you notice the dashes you'll likely encounter the next time you pick up a book (or e-reader). Perhaps you'll even take a moment to see how they've been used and say to yourself, "I can do that — I AM a writer!"

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