Punctuation—The Em Dash
Charlotte Bronte and I are both fond of the em dash. In fact, she is probably the reason I use the device because I don’t remember it being a part of my writing style prior to reading Jane Eyre
in the late ’80s. What’s funny is I can’t recall any other fantasy authors (yes, I just implied Charlotte Bronte is a fantasy author in addition to her other titles) using it as profusely as Charlotte and I. J.R.R. Tolkien may be guilty of influencing me here. J.K. Rowling has not influenced me yet because I’ve been cautious not to read any of the Harry Potter releases. I intend to look into her writing style when the Choices Meant for Gods
trilogy is complete and all the way through editing.
The proper use of the em dash is in sentences where you’re indicating a lapse in syntax. It can be a sign of laziness on the part of the writer because, let’s face it, it’s easier to string two or three phrases together by connecting them with em dashes than to organize thoughts carefully into two or three grammatically correct and tidy sentences. These dashes can be used for powerful effect, too, forcing the reader to pause in a more dramatic and clear fashion than a mere comma would do (and I don’t mean to diss the comma).
Em dashes also allow the writer to forego proper grammar, which makes me uncomfortable. The clause in between the dashes doesn’t always include a subject and verb, but—let me stress this—if the clause does include a subject and verb, you best make sure they agree in tense and number.
Here are a couple of examples from my fantasy novel Choices Meant for Go
ds to give you a feel for the use of the em dash and to show you proper formatting. In the first example, Mahsilette—a 3,000-year-old goddess—is delivering an important vision to the heroine of the novel.It began simply enough—a pretty meadow, a soft summer breeze, the scent of undisturbed wildflowers—but the harmony didn’t last.
A page or two later, the heroine’s mentor and guardian is upset because their god didn’t move quickly enough to protect her while she received the vision, and he thinks of all the reasons he’d like to take her out of the god’s care.He didn’t agree with the way Master Rothahn trained his ward. He didn’t agree with the new spells—dangerous spells—she was being taught to weave. And he didn’t agree with using an unreliable sailor who was currently in Drake’s employ.
I’ve given you a couple of examples here, so let me give you some technical info now. First off, the em dash goes by that name because it’s roughly the length of the capital letter M in newspaper print/fonts of years gone by. (Yeah, I’ve been in this profession since paste-up days when we counted spaces to write headlines. Believe me, that sucked.)
Next, to type an em dash in Word, merely type your text, type two hyphens (no spaces), type the next word, type a space at the end, and the program will “create” the em dash out of the two hyphens. It’s like magic (or the geasa, for those of you who have read Choices Meant for Gods
)! You can also use your number keypad to the far right of your keyboard to create the em dash. First, make sure the Num Lock key has been depressed so the keypad is enabled. Then hold down the “Alt” key while keying in the code 0151. That will give you the em dash without you having to type any hyphens or other characters.
Remember that most English professors and business writing calls for em dashes without spaces before or after them. Some journalism practices require a space before and a space after, which is what I am used to, so you'll see a mixture here at Today the Dragon Wins
. But I caution against using em dashes in business writing (and thesis papers) because of their informal feel.
Tomorrow, we’ll cover the en dash.
(Sandy Lender has been an editor in the magazine publishing industry for fifteen years and is the author of the new fantasy novel Choices Meant for Gods,
available from http://www.archebooks.com/
.)“Some days, I just want the dragon to win.”
Tags: Choices Meant for Gods
, Sandy Lender
, Today the Dragon Wins
, em dash
, Charlotte Bronte
, Jane Eyre
, J.R.R. Tolkien
, J.K. Rowling
, Harry Potter
, fantasy novel
, business writing
, thesis papers
Labels: Choices Meant for Gods, grammar, punctuation, Sandy Lender