Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Dashing Around

One of my favorite punctuation marks is the em dash.  Although I know that most people are now thinking WTF is an em dash, I cannot express how much this tiny line has had an impact on the style of my writing.

The Punctuation Guide says an em dash is one of the most versatile marks in writing, as it can be substituted for parenthesis, commas, or colons.  In other words, em dashes are used to signify breaks in action.

Even though I'd used them for years, I had no idea what this small line was called.  Then, this past summer, I submitted a piece of writing to someone for review, and they asked about the use of it.  They knew the proper term - em dash - but rarely saw it in action(just to brag, the person in question said that I used it to great effect).

Em dashes can be a great tool.  I usually use it to create a flow of action or dialogue when I think there needs to be a break in the flow of thought but believe the colon is too formal in that spot(confession - I often think the colon is too reminds me of my 9th grade English class).  I use it as an extension of thought that helps the reader feel the action at the pace I want the action felt.

Of course, this particular mark can be used too frequently.  If used every paragraph, or multiple times in a single paragraph, it becomes visually distracting.  Although we often think of writing as little more than a medium to transmit description, good writing can evoke emotions based on visual effect as well(think of the single use sentence in the middle of a page for shock factor).  The eye gets drawn towards anything out of the ordinary, and the em dash is certainly that.  However, when the unusual becomes the norm, it loses effect.

There are other times to use it, such as in place of commas and parenthesis(as mentioned above), but, once again, do so sparingly.  I recommend no more than twice on a single page, and even then I wouldn't do it every page.  Em dashes can create order and flow, but too many make the reader think you're a cheap carnival barker.

No comments:

Post a Comment