Commas, colons, and parentheses—these are common tools of the scribe. In fact, we are so familiar with them that oftentimes we incorporate them in our writing without a single conscious thought. Unfortunately, however, the same can’t be said for em dashes—many of us writers just aren’t that familiar with them, so we balk at incorporating them into our work.
Well, fellow scribes, we’re gonna change that today.
What if I were to tell you that you already knew how to use the em dash but just didn’t realize it? Take a look back at the first words of this article—commas, colons, and parentheses. If you know how to use those punctuation marks, then you have the bulk of it down. Seriously. Let’s break it down with some examples:
Ex. 1 with commas:
Howlin’ Wolf, a bluesman with a growl to suit his moniker, was a pioneer of Chicago blues.
Ex. 1 with em dashes:
Howlin’ Wolf—a bluesman with a growl to suit his moniker—was a pioneer of Chicago blues.
Ex. 2 with parentheses:
James Cotton (he played in the Muddy Waters Blues Band) is renowned as one of the most skilled and influential blues harmonica players.
Ex. 2 with em dashes:
James Cotton—he played in the Muddy Waters Blues Band—is renowned as one of the most skilled and influential blues harmonica players.
Notice the similarity between Ex. 1 and Ex. 2. What’s going on here? Both sets of examples are actually performing the same function in the sentence. As the fine folks at The Chicago Manual of Style put it, “[e]m dashes are used to set off an amplifying or explanatory element and in that sense can function as an alternative to parentheses . . . , commas . . . , or a colon . . . especially when an abrupt break in thought is called for” (CMS, 6.82). The only difference with their use in the place of colons is that the element is offset at the end of a sentence rather than in the middle. Check out the next example set to see it in action.
Ex. 3 with a colon:
Despite living most of his life in obscurity, one figure is synonymous with fingerpicking blues: Mississippi John Hurt.
Ex. 3 with an em dash:
Despite living most of his life in obscurity, one figure is synonymous with fingerpicking blues—Mississippi John Hurt.
There you have it—well, most of it. This is grammar after all, so, of course, we can get more complex with our dashing. Let’s dive in with two final examples.
Ex. 4 with an em dash separating the noun and pronoun:
Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards—they were all heavily influenced by early American bluesmen and reintroduced America to the art form in the 1960s.
Chances are you’ve heard sentences constructed in this manner tons of times, especially in conversation. Think of it as a sort of inverse colon construction: instead of the “colon phrase” appearing at the end of the sentence, it comes first, kicking the sentence off.
Our next and final mode of use comes in handy when crafting realistic dialogue.
Ex. 5 with an em dash indicating an interruption:
“Without a single doubt,” Ryan started, “my absolute favorite kind of music is—”
“Let me guess,” Kari said, “blues.”
“How did you know?!”
If you haven’t noticed, aside from the examples, I’ve been using dashes like crazy in this article (in three out of my first six sentences), and that’s because exposure is the best way to learn how to use a punctuation mark. If I weren’t purposefully showing you how to use em dashes, I would edit most of them out. That’s because em dashes are fresh, exciting, and—dare I say—exotic, but they are also boisterous and loud, unabashedly cutting into prose. As such, overuse can be distracting to the reader, so, more often than not, the unassuming, common punctuation marks are perfectly adequate in getting the job done. Remember, punctuation should facilitate your message, not distract from it.
So, go forth, intrepid wordsmiths, and spice up your prose with a dash of—well, you get the idea . .
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