In Defence Of The Em-Dash

Like an inhibition-free starlet, the younger, flashier em-dash has left its older counterparts — the comma, colon and semi-colon — in the dust and risen to the top of the grammatical game. You can’t read a sentence these days without tripping over the author’s asides, footnotes, misgivings, jokes (ones too weak to hold an entire sentence together), concessions, second thoughts and prejudices.

This is partly, as author Lynn Truss in her book Eats, Shoots And Leaves noted, because: “The main reason people use the em-dash is that [they] know you can’t use it wrongly — which, for a punctuation mark, is an uncommon virtue.”

The em-dash, for grammar novices, is the longer version of the en-dash. It entered popular usage around the 1700s, and is called an em-dash because its length is considered to be equal to that of the letter m. And — while an en-dash enjoys pride of place on your keyboard — the em-dash requires some rather more complicated clicking maneuvers. As one colleague put it, it’s time for the em-dash to get an upgrade worthy of its stature: “Give it a raise, a corner office and a key of its own on the keyboard.”

And why not? The semi-colon is an antiquated relic; too formal and famously scoffed at by Kurt Vonnegut as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing… all they do is show you’ve been to college”. The comma is too half-hearted, the polite excuse-me of grammar, and the colon: a gracious gateway inviting you in, it is the neighbourhood aunty whose cookies smell and taste like they haven’t seen the inside of an oven since WWII.

The drunk of the gang

The em-dash, on the other hand, is the drunk of the gang. He is masculine, boisterous, and what he has to say stands out, demands recognition, and declares that the reader must pay attention or face the consequences. Bold and unsettling, it ushers parenthetical statements into a sentence with little regard for what came before or after. Consider it to be party-crasher — an immensely popular one.

Nandita Aggarwal, editorial director at Hachette publications, is all for the em-dash. “Long-winded sentences scare me, and they make all editors shudder. In contemporary writing, the style has become somewhat breathless. I’ll accept anything that adds a measure of coherence to writing. It shouldn’t be entirely disposed of — that would be throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater! — but taught as a good and versatile piece of punctuation.” Aggarwal hesitates and then bursts out: “I am very particular about grammar, but I kind of like these unconventional expressions. I like the smilie face. I’ve started putting smilie faces at the ends of rejection letters to would-be authors.”

Besides Emily Dickinson, a writer known for her unconventional use of em-dashes, it was the universally beloved Edgar Allen Poe who had risen to the em-dash’s defense: “Every writer…must be mortified and vexed at the distortion of his sentences by the printer’s general substitution of a semicolon, or a comma, for the dash… [this has] been brought about by the revulsion consequent upon its excessive employment about 20 years ago. The Byronic poets were all dash…”

Combing out em-dashes like lice

Author Anuja Chauhan seems to be opting for the em-dash as the lesser of evils. She says, “It’s way better than the semicolon, which I loath. It makes me feel like I’m reading the Indian Constitution. The em-dash is more natural, and closely mirrors “the way people speak. It gives a cozy, chatty feel.”

But others are not as enthusiastic. Author Ann Patchett claims to have lived a childhood entirely devoid of em-dashes, thanks to holy intervention. “I grew up in a Catholic school, and I’m sure the nuns who taught me had never seen an em-dash. What I did not know I did not miss.” Oddly enough, Patchett’s relationship with the em-dash began where most authors’ ends — at the editing stage. “Copy editors kept putting them in my books, and they just keep increasing with time. I patiently comb them out like lice, leaving just a few in to make myself look modern.”

Is the em-dash just the newest attempt to reinvent the wheel — and will it be followed by yet another grammatical player taking over in a hundred years or so? Perhaps it will be the renaissance of the Interrobang — the fusion of a question mark and exclamation — which will captivate writers and editors alike?

Conceptualised by an advertising agency in the ’60s, the Interrobang is simultaneously efficient, attention-grabbing, contemporary, and fun to say. Writer Shinie Antony, while not commenting on the innovative brilliance of the Interrobang, agrees that the em-dash might just be the flavour of the century. “The ellipsis was replaced by the semicolon. Then everyone started complaining that the semicolon was overused and the em-dash came to the rescue,” she explains.

Antony points out, with a generous helping of common sense, that “punctuation puritans” should just focus on whether the sentence makes sense or not, and rest the matter there.

But what’s the theory-based fun in that? As far as we’re concerned — and that is a great amount of concern — the em-dash versus the comma/colon/semicolon war is likely to rage on — unconcerned with breathless readers — but only till the interrobang makes its entrance into the mainstream. Won’t the em-dash era end with a bang?!

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