In Eats Shoots & Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, plucky Lynne Truss describes punctuation as “a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling.”
With this in mind, I introduce the most chivalrous punctuation mark of all. Ladies and gentlemen — the Mr. Darcy of punctuation marks — the em dash. Em dashes are used to indicate a pronounced interruption or break in thought. They should be used sparingly, and only when another punctuation mark (such as a comma or colon) will not suffice.
While some do not afford the em dash the respect it deserves (and you know who you are), I offer the following reasons why you should “secure” the em dash for your own use:
• Em dashes can be used when you want to introduce additional information in a sentence, but don’t want to set it off with commas or parenthesis. (In general people ignore text in parenthesis.) My piano teacher — an exceptionally patient woman — was visibly agitated by my ham-fisted playing.
• Em dashes can also be used to separate a pronoun from what it refers to. Mr. Harris is the perfect gentleman — articulate, charming, and handsome.
• Em dashes can also be used to convey a more emphatic aside. Your brother — no matter what he says — cannot make you unconscious just by looking at you.
The best use of an em dash I have ever seen was in an old issue of a Texas Exes newsletter. The article was introducing the newest longhorn selected to serve as Bevo, the UT mascot. A brief family history of the animal was given that included this sentence:
“Bevo’s father was killed when he was struck by lighting — his hooves and horns were blown right off — leaving Bevo an orphan.” This sentence alone should convince even the most belligerent skeptics of the utility of this unassuming punctuation mark.
Please do not use two hyphens to make an em dash (Or your hooves and horns will be blown right off.) Create an em dash on a Mac with <option> <shift> <hyphen>. On a PC, it’s <Ctrl> <Alt> <minus sign>. In html, it’s — .
Hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into punctuation etiquette. My next blog will feature an enlivening discussion about the most exasperating punctuation mark of all — the Mr. Collins of punctuation — the hyphen. Everyone together and with feeling . . . “Oh, Mr. Collins!”
A version of this article also appeared on Ragan Communication’s PR Daily.