by Grant Faulkner
I have a confession—I overuse the em-dash. That sentence, in fact, would have been better written with a colon.
Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing—I mean, as executive director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—an organization that espouses the notion of “writing with abandon” for 30 days each November to create a 50,000-word novel—dashes come in quite handy.
Dashes Catapult Sentences Forward
Dashes—although they interrupt sentences—also catapult sentences forward, because of all punctuation marks, the dash possesses action, drama, and speed. As Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty so astutely put it, the dash is “the yowl of a pirate dashing into a fray”—just what one needs to write a novel with high velocity.
Dashes dash in every sort of way—they dance giddily, sashay, stab, and rumble—connecting even as they disconnect in their insistence on motion. Dashes assert—where parentheses and commas de-emphasize. Sure, they can annoy readers with their cajoling—and they often force readers to struggle through options and assemble sentences themselves—but they also give prose a pulse, lifting sentences from the flat textures they typically reside in.
Dashes Show Simultaneity
My favorite use of the dash is to capture the simultaneity of life—the paradoxical crowding of texts, tweets, memories, yearnings, and to-do lists in our increasingly distracted, disjointed heads. Our thoughts are a thicket of asides and interruptions—so the dash is the best punctuation mark to represent the dramas of our ADD states—to present the schisms and drifts of a character’s consciousness in its entirety.
In fact, the dash wasn’t even commonly used before the 1700s. It’s a punctuation mark that has only found its place in the modern world’s multiplicity and speed.
Emily Dickinson Liked Dashes
Emily Dickinson is perhaps the doyenne of the dash. She used it more excessively than even I am doing now, setting the precedent for the dash’s grand ascendency in the 20th century. She used dashes to introduce hushes, sighs, and contortions of intense emotions—fragmenting language and forcing unrelated words to rush together. Dashes animate her poems with a pause that is almost musical—representing the stresses of uncertainty.
So safer – guess – with just my soul
Upon the Window pane –
Where other Creatures put their eyes –
Incautious – of the Sun –
Too Many Dashes?
You’ll never hear someone say they overuse semicolons.
But the fact is, as I’ve pointed out—excessively—is that the em-dash can be misused—horribly misused. Lynne Truss posits in Eats, Shoots & Leaves that the em-dash is over used because it’s the one punctuation mark that is difficult to use wrongly—and that’s true—but at the same time, it can make one’s prose resemble a yippy little dog begging for attention. It’s the most addictive punctuation mark. You’ll never hear someone say they overuse semicolons.
Reconsider Dashes When You Revise
When I revise, I become horribly self-conscious of my mad dashing. I delete dashes liberally, almost upon sight—unless I want to sound hyperactive or create wildly twisting streams of consciousness.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.” Overusing dashes can have a similar effect—prose that is trying too hard to be dramatic when it has no business being so. Dashes can render sentences breathlessly hyperactive, silly—or just downright messy. Ironically, Fitzgerald’s editor Max Perkins deleted many a dash from The Great Gatsby.
So, in the spirit of National Novel Writing Month, here’s my advice: Use dashes in the zestful romp of writing a first draft, but snip them out in revision. Ask yourself if there’s another punctuation mark that could work in its place and consider the different effect. Dashes, after all, are most effective as the flashy accoutrements to an otherwise refined outfit, not as the main feature of the outfit itself.
That said—dashes are dang fun. Yowl!
Dashes, Parentheses, and Commas
Dashes Versus Colons
Dashes, Colons, and Commas
Do You Need Spaces Around an Em Dash?