The em dash and how to use (not overuse) it: Copy Desk Notes

Dear editors,

First things first: To create an em dash ( — ) on a Mac keyboard, press option + shift + -. Train your eye to recognize the shorter en dash (–), which should not be used in place of an em dash.

Also important: em dash style varies slightly across Curbed, Racked, and Eater.

Eater: Spaces around em dashes.

Racked: Spaces around em dashes.

Curbed: No spaces around em dashes.

This email will follow Eater/Racked style.

Okay, now we can get started.

Em dashes are extremely versatile, but they should not be overused. If you have an em dash in every other paragraph, for instance, take a moment to come up with a different sentence construction or punctuation mark instead. Overuse dilutes their emphasis and can make your writing choppy.

Dashes are useful for setting off information — like so — and for indicating an abrupt change or an emphatic pause in your sentence.

Let’s go a little deeper into each use.

Setting off information: The Parenthetical Dash

A pair of dashes works to set off a nonessential clause within your sentence. Using em dashes rather than commas adds emphasis to this clause. It’s best to use this construction only once per sentence to avoid confusion. A few recent examples:

The process — here’s a video — involved high-tech lasers, lab-grade UV lamps, and even milk.
In the Mid-Atlantic, the Plamondon family — whose patriarch helped launch Roy Rogers back in 1968 — holds the keys to new expansion plans.

Em dashes are not the only way to add additional information to your sentence. Sometimes, it’s better to set the clause off using commas.

Use a pair of em dashes when you want to add emphasis to this information, indicating that it bears special significance to the rest of your sentence.

Indicating a change: The Pause Dash

Other times, a dash tells the reader to pause and ready themselves for a shift in the sentence. It can be used to add emphasis and importance — or even drama — to what comes next. A few recent examples:

“It had a cellular structure,” she says. So Mazurek put a few of the samples in water — and they started to grow.
Think of it as a futuristic, R-rated Babe — with better clothes.
Herschel is about to launch its first apparel collection, which will hit stores like Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom next month, and it’s not what you’d expect — there are no hipster-style flannel shirts.

There are a couple common pitfalls associated with the Pause Dash. First of all, beware of overuse: too many dramatic pauses in your story and you’ll end up with something that sounds a bit silly.

Sometimes, the dash may not even be the punctuation mark you’re looking for. Take this recent sentence, where I changed it to a colon:

We can’t talk about race and food, because nobody wants to acknowledge the truth: Privilege is a deeply satisfying possession.

Here, it doesn’t make sense to indicate an emphatic shift in the sentence. Rather, the clause following the dash clarifies and defines what comes just before, making a colon more appropriate.

Other uses!

Use an em dash to attribute a quotation (Racked and Curbed, no space necessary after the em dash; Eater, add one space afterward). For instance:

I always keep one Evian mineral water spray in my purse and one in my beach bag. I hate feeling hot, and this is always an instant refresh to cool you down and make you momentarily forget you’re in a humid summer hellhole. been using these things for 15 (or maybe more) years now. — Jackie Goldstein, director of editorial operations

Copy Editing News and Intel

With help from Missy, Sonia, Mariam, Helen, and Asad, I’ve added brand-new updates sections to the Eater and Curbed style guides.

Please take a look at them now and get yourself acquainted with the process for updating posts responsibly. Also of interest: the corrections sections, where you’ll find our approach for making corrections to Curbed, Eater, and Racked stories.

This week, I added Topshop, cutoffs (no hyphen), halal, kosher, A-frame, cedar contemporary, Tudor, Streamline Moderne, email, megadevelopment, tabbouleh, Brussels sprouts, and North India to our word lists. Ping me anytime if you have questions about a word!

Apparently there is a competitive punning subculture (sounds edgy). Plus, there’s “a low-key capitalization battle” over the word “internet” happening at the Supreme Court, and the New York Times copy desk released an open letter after the announcement of a massive buyout program.

Have a great week,

Emma

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