Most Underused Punctuation Mark in American Writing*

Short take

Writer’s Toolbox

Em-dash

Book recs

So says the lexicographer and usage genius Bryan Garner. My desk copy of the 4th edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage states on page 750, “The em-dash is perhaps the most underused punctuation mark in American writing.”

 It is also one of the most versatile of all punctuation marks, so I have been paying attention to its usage in my reading. In case you were wondering, the em-dash is as wide as the capital M.

The em-dash may be used in place of commas, colons, and parentheses. The effect is different and often more disruptive to the reader, as well as more emphatic. Commas and colons are subtle in appearance because we’re used to those and they’re smaller, taking up less ink; the parentheses are a bit old-fashioned. I enjoy the em-dash for its clarity and readability, though it is more informal. .

To create the em-dash in most word processing programs, simply write two hyphens, type the next word and hit the space bar—voila you’ve just used an em-dash. Here are examples I’ve come across in my reading.

ADMAU is thorough and timely and solid, as good as Follett’s and Gilman’s and the handful of other great American usage guides of the century. Their format—which was Fowler’s—is ADMAU’s, too: concise entries on individual words and phrases and expository cap-titled MINIESSAYS on any issue broad enough to warrant more general discussion. [David Foster Wallace’s essay on “Authority and American Usage” and the subsection titled, Why Bryan A Garner is a Genius (1), p. 118] 

Guidance is to use no more than two em-dashes in the same sentence to avoid confusion. The em-dashes above reference the earlier standard by Fowler. ADMAU is the acronym for A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. The hyphen used for the word cap-titled is a good description which he then uses in the word, MINIESSAYS, because Garner includes articles with titles in all caps.

Tom believes what they told him in journalism school—that all good reporters comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. [“Who You Callin’ Crazy” chapter from If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name; News from Small Town Alaska by Heather Lende, p. 71.]

This example uses the em-dash in place of the colon to emphasize what follows, the same with Willie’s memoir excerpt below which focuses on the word, love. God may be the most powerful word, but lovelove is the end of that sentence by design.

That’s cool. God, good, it all means the same. It’s the most powerful word in the English language—except for love. And God is love, so there you have it. Love is God, and God is love, end of story. [Roll me up and Smoke Me When I Die, Musings from the Road by Willie Nelson, p.106]

I’ve come across more and more em-dashes in my reading and maybe that has to do with paying attention. It’s kind of like when you buy that car you’ve always wanted. Suddenly you see it everywhere. Garner is not to be dismissed—genius or not—and his fourth edition is six years old.

Language evolves and breathes with changes in usage, however subtle or flagrant. I was editing a quarterly financial report and opted for the em-dash over three semicolons and commas. Much better.

Punctuation is a cuing system by which writers signal their readers to slow down, pause, speed up, supply tonal inflections, and otherwise move more smoothly through sentences. Punctuation is an aspect of rhetoric: a way of giving emphasis and rhythm and achieving clarity. [Garner on Punctuation, page 746]

Next time you have a sentence which requires a clarification, an aside, or allusion, know that you have tools beyond the comma or colon at your disposal. So go ahead and play with punctuation. Use the em-dash at will, or for fun, or better yet, to add texture and depth to that line.

FOOTNOTES

*According to Bryan Garner, lexicographer and author of Garner’s Modern English Usage, the Authority on Grammar, Usage, and Style, 4th Ed, 2016. I first encountered Garner in an essay by the late David Foster Wallace, or DFW, about the Usage Wars in his collection, Consider the Lobster. Earlier editions included the ADMAU and the word American in the title evolved into English in this latest edition.

*The entry on the em-dash—a word which is hyphenated—is nearly a full page. Garner includes four paragraphs on the en-dash and its use in joining groups of words to show a range, such as times, dates, or numbers.

*If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name; News from Small Town Alaska by Heather Lende is a well-written collection of sketches of the people and the Last Frontier state if you want to learn more than you might see on a cruise or fishing trip. The ’90s series Northern Exposure had shaped most of my ideas of what Alaska is all about but I read Lende when I was visiting Haines last summer, and it provided a gritty peek into the hardships and the kinds of people who live there.

*The best-kept secret is last. Jordan Penn’s online guide to punctuation is one of the simplest and best, check it out here: https://www.thepunctuationguide.com His yellow toolbar at the top of the page has all the punctuation marks as hyperlinks. Here’s the em-dash and click on en-dash and hyphen if you’re curious about horizontal punctuation marks.

May 11, 2022

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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