Musings + Essays

An Ode to the Em Dash.

By: Jen Shoop

I occasionally audit old posts I’ve written, alternately cringing at and nodding along with the content, and always grimacing at grammatical errors and typos.  I have come to prioritize publication over perfection, which contradicts much of the drawing-within-the-lines constitution of my personality (or does it?!), and this — much to my dismay — has given way to far too many mechanical blunders in my writing.

I apologize to you.

I apologize to the profession of writing.

I apologize to Strunk and White, authors of the widely-used style guide Elements of Style which was, at one point in my life, when I was running a small freelance editing business, my Bible of sorts.

Mainly, though, I apologize to my sophomore year English teacher, Mrs. Mattingly, who might suffer a heart attack were she to read one of said posts.

One particularly pervasive style crutch I noted in several recent posts was my overuse of the em dash, which, come to think of it [ed. note: I am currently straining to avoid the em dash while writing about it and it is tough going.  I am an em dash addict!], is something of a persona non grata in the technical world of writing.  If memory serves, Strunk and White encouraged sparing use of the em dash, and only when other forms of punctation wouldn’t suffice.  The colon is king in most cases where an em dash might be contemplated: “The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.”

I mulled over this unwelcome information for several days.

I chewed on it.

And I spit it out.

You see, I’d hate to be accused of slovenly writing, but I cannot commit to disabusing myself of the em dash, in part because old dogs can’t learn new tricks (or unlearn old ones), and in part because I’m unconvinced that Strunk and White form the appropriate jury on matters of memoir-style writing, where style may not fall within the dotted lines.  I recently wrote that “I’m living life in bullet-point these days: staccato, disjointed, neither here nor there.”  The em dash, I realize, is a convenient grammatical gesture towards this state-of-being: it can tie and untie the sequence of borderline non sequitur discoveries and musings that populate my day-to-day life, suggesting a casual but nonetheless existent relationship between clauses, thoughts, concepts.  In other words: I need the em dash, gesticulative as it is of informality, of pastiche, of self-interruption, of mid-stream revision that currently define my writing and, well, my life.

A dear friend generously described my writing as follows (and yes, K., I did screenshot this and cry about it for a good long while, and I now often re-read my own writing with this gorgeous imagery in mind and wonder about how well I’ve upheld your casting):

You just dive in and rummage around in a thought for awhile and then get comfortable and then rummage some more until you’ve made this awesome little thought room on a subject.  And then you like leave the room with the door open and are like, “Hey everyone, come on in and see what you think.”  And I get to walk in and see all these little thought nooks and thought crannies.”

Of course she’s lavishing me with questionably-earned praise here, and my intent is not to self-aggrandize, but there is something true about her description of my writing, and it is this: that I rarely sit down with an end-point in mind, and that I am often more interested in writing to know what I think than in communicating a fully-formed thought.  In this pursuit, the em dash is not only a worthy companion but a necessary accomplice.  It enables movement, real-time course correction, ad hoc shifts in perspective.  It tethers thoughts of unequal value together in hasty, temporary arrangement.  It reflects the flit and flutter of my magpie mind.


Cheers to the em-dash, the Friday to my Robinson Crusoe.


+I know that there are many well-educated grammar and literature experts who read this blog (heiiii Roya!) and, a propos of the foregoing, you may find Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris, head of copy at The New Yorker for many years, interesting.  Ms. Norris were certainly disapprove of my overuse of the em dash, but that’s neither here nor there: she’s priggish but brilliant.

+This slim little book (mentioned above as well) would be a good gift for a talented, young writer.  Though I now apparently eschew many of their rules (#grammarrebel), it made me aware of the conventions and improved my writing when I was starting out.

+These were just restocked in a bunch of colors — I love that pale pink color!

+I wish this hadn’t sold out in my size already — so chic, plus an extra 20% off when in cart!  Available in more sizes, but not on sale, here.  It’s the perfect statement piece during these lingering winter months when you’re so sick of wearing the same 5 sweaters in rotation.

+I’ve been very into the look of bodysuits lately and have my eyes on this, this, and this.

+Another on-trend glen plaid beauty, this time on super sale!  (#love).  Or, try just a smidge of the trend with this.

+Did anyone else love the movie Space Camp growing up?  Such an excellent 80s kids’ flick, the premise of which is mind-boggling but amazing: kids are accidentally sent into space.  I was obsessed with space when I was little and daydreamed about this “accidentally” happening to me, too. Therefore, this must be purchased.

+Such a fun sweater in such a fun color.

+Just ordered more of this — my favorite brow tamer.

+This is the kind of dress I lived in when I was pregnant.

+These are reminiscent of those Prada heels I’ve been swooning over (see #6), but are $50.  Also love these!

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11 thoughts on “An Ode to the Em Dash.

  1. I am so with you on the em dash – love this ode to it! Your writing is bar none in the blogosphere, in my humble opinion … em dash away!

  2. I relate to this on a spiritual level (ha) and 100% overuse the em dash…but I can’t help it! My blog posts are filled with what I consciously think is an unhealthy amount of them but they drop in so naturally when you’re writing in a stream of consciousness. Though I’m a bit concerned now, as I don’t put spaces around it, which I’m now thinking could be wrong?! Going to go Google now!

    1. Yes!! I agree with you; I think they’re a helpful device when replicating or even just organizing, mid-thought, the tumble of ideas. Almost like putting down piping as the water is flowing out. And ah, yes, the spaces…I used to know the convention but clearly I’ve gone my own wild way on this one.

  3. I think that once you know the proper grammar rules, you should be able to break them to capture your voice. (This probably applies to many other areas as well.) I have two distinct styles of writing. In everyday writing, I am an abuser of parentheses and ellipses (it sounds more casual, and better captures how I talk in real life), but my academic writing strictly follows the APA style guide. So em-dash away!

  4. Like you, I am a frequent dipper into the em-dash jar. Maybe more frequent — I have a vague rule about not using them in adjacent sentences, but that’s more aesthetic than grammatical. To me, semi-colons are separators; em dashes and parantheses are augmenters. (And footnotes are for full-steam rambles.)
    Whenever I read any John Irving, I use em-dashes like mad (the wrestling motif is, happily, less catching).

    1. Sisters in em-dashery! Love it. I do think it’s a stylistic tic of mine but I don’t half-mind it, especially when other literary greats have been accused of the same 🙂

  5. When I first read the title I thought it was about Queen Victoria’s dog Dash! We’ve been loving Victoria on PBS. I admit to using dashes way too often and honestly didn’t realize (or remember from school) that there are different types. And I have gotten lazy myself. Sadly my 8th grader isn’t getting any grammar or sentence structure instruction. This along with cursive and spelling just aren’t getting taught. Do I blame computers, email, texting? With the good there is some bad. I’m hoping she gets an old school English teacher when she starts high school next year. And maybe I’ll relearn along with her!

    1. Haha! Funny how TV/reading obsessions can color your impression of the world in such small ways. It’s an interesting point you raise: were penmanship and sentence diagramming tools for the 20th century? Are they becoming obsolete in today’s digital age? Are we being luddites if we insist on the study of these “old school” disciplines when they may not in fact have a material impact on the careers of our children? I don’t know the answers to these things…but I’m rather unapologetically and unreflectingly on your side of the equation on this one!

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