I recently found myself in a familiar scenario: editing a book that was filled with em dashes. It made me remember a piece I’d written a few years ago:
Attack of the Mad Dashes
All was not well in Editorial Land. The em dashes were taking over. This seemingly innocuous piece of punctuation was having a field day amongst a multitude of submissions. No other punctuation stood a chance against them.
The dashes had skewered the semicolons. Clobbered the commas. Eradicated the ellipses. And were, in general, inserting themselves ad nauseum into poetry and prose that didn’t even need the extra punctuation.
“Nobody remembers me anymore,” whispered the ellipsis
“No wonder,” said the semicolon. “You always were so wishy-washy. On the other hand, I am an extremely relevant mark, and I’m going to waste. Writers rarely use me, even when I’m needed. The number of sentence fragments and comma splices is ridiculous.”
“Now don’t go insulting me,” said the comma. “I’m easy to understand, and, besides, you don’t need a ridiculous keyboard shortcut to type any of us.”
Back at the computer, one valiant editor was cracking under the relentless dash barrage. “Here’s a hyphen that’s obviously meant to be an em dash,” she said. “Here’s one story that must have a dash in every other sentence. Surely there must be another way to emphasize a word or phrase. Stop! Stop!”
But the dashes kept coming.
Not only are dashes still tres chic, but ellipses are no longer sitting in the corner and sighing over how no one remembers them. Dashes and ellipses are everywhere, while the colon and semicolon have been sent into semiretirement. The New York Times even ran a wonderful article on the semicolon called “Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location.”
I think people like dashes and ellipses because they can be used in place of a comma, semicolon, or colon, and while they might not be the best choice, they’re usually not technically incorrect, either. They’re sort of like non-rule-based punctuation. Although many writers are apparently unable to understand the simple concept that the em dash is used to indicate an abrupt stop or interruption, while ellipses are for trailing speech or thoughts.
But don’t get me started on the en dash…. (Note use of four-point ellipsis for trailing thoughts that are a complete sentence.)