Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Here’s a robust defense of the ever-useful em-dash. I didn’t even realize the em-dash needed defending, but apparently it’s much derided in some stuffier circles.
I aim to use no em-dashes in this post, just to prove how flexible it is. It’s like the most special arrow in your quiver, much easier to justify than the semicolon. More powerful than a pair of parens. You can use it for so many different reasons, as a matter of fact, that old-school grammarians must find it hard to pin down rules to attach to it.
It’s hard to remember when I first became aware of the usefulness of the em, but a skim through my first novel, Parts Unknown (2003) shows a certain comfort with it but nothing approaching obsession or abuse. I don’t think I was overly dependent on it before the 21st century began, but I did use to rely on a sprinkling of semicolons here and there in those days.
But people don’t really understand the semicolon, and that’s one reason it’s been mocked and disdained for years now. They don’t realize that a semicolon has to be followed by an independent clause; it’s like the hitch between two railroad cars. (See what I did there?) In contrast, the em-dash can set apart almost anything, from exclamations to digressive inserts to deeper layers of description or detail to whatever you want.
I used a set of them in my recent flash CNF piece, “Describe Your Father in One Sentence,” as a way to keep the sentence going in a natural way and to shoehorn in a key piece of information. In an 800-plus-word sentence, it’s hardly even noticeable. Frankly I was surprised I didn’t need more ems to pull the whole thing off.
Don’t get me started on colons though. They’re as misunderstood as semicolons, and there are boring arguments about capitalizing the word after the colon. If you want to use a colon to throw a list at the reader, knock yourself out, but I don’t see much need for it when a semicolon will do (and there are no capitalization fights with semis either).
But for my money, nothing beats the em-dash for creating fresh rhythmic variations in sentence tracking. There are many more opportunities for musicality, ways to make your writing feel like it’s full of dotted eighth notes and fermatas, because an em-dash can set apart a single word or a lines-long interjection, and no one can tell you it’s wrong.
So here’s to the em-dash. And, hey: I made it to the end of the post without using one, but, honestly, I don’t feel good about it.