the contextual life

thoughts without borders

the drama that is the em dash

with one comment

emily dickinson: poet, em dash lover


when you understand something, it becomes less frightening: less esoteric. grammar illustrates this point perfectly.

my first active encounter with grammar was Strunk & White’s Elements of Style–the widely-read, much-loved, and sometimes contested style and grammar guide. i flipped through the slim 4th edition a few times but didnt have enough experience to know how to use it, or reason enough to use it for that matter. when i first picked it up, i felt i should read it cover to cover–like a novel. i was writing at the time but was only in the early stages; i hadn’t developed a “bigger picture,” a sophisticated understanding of the art, and was trying to cram years-worth of information that i should’ve learned in grade school into a few sittings. while i wasn’t quite ready to use the guide for tips, tricks, and inspiration,  i knew i was missing an important piece of information indispensable to an educated class.

zadie smith: em dash user

as early as 10th grade i came across writers who used punctuation–or refused to–boldly. The Beats, mainly jack kerouac, were my informal introduction to these grammatical demarcations. kerouac’s experimental approach to fiction, memoir, travel writing, and journalism was exactly what i needed in my anarchic and angsty teen years. milan kundera, possibly to be placed on the opposite end of the spectrum, used grammar elegantly–like a school boy fearing a ruler across the knuckles–and through him, i viewed punctuation as precise, as if it were a road map–guiding readers through a terrain of words.

when it comes down to it, regardless of how the masters use it–or don’t use it–punctuation is an art: commas, colons, periods, and dashes. they all mean different things; they all set the tone, pace, and beauty of a work.

i asked around to some literary friends what their favorite punctuation mark was and was surprised by how many of them, without pause, mentioned the em dash. it’s one of my favorites too, especially when writing informal emails.

Here is what a few of my fellow grammar-nerds had to say about this versatile mark:

[rebecca discusses her affinity for the em dash, how she uses it, and the way emily dickinson did]

[mariam talks about her use of the em dash and zadie smith’s perfect placement]

in the spirit of my favorite grammarian, Roy Peter Clark, who always gives his readers great exercises at the ends of the chapters in his books, i offer some of my own for em dash usage:
1. find examples in your daily paper and see why the journalist chose that mark of punctuation as opposed to a comma or a colon.
2. find an example of comma usage that could be more effective if an em dash were used.
3. write a sentence where an em dash at the end is used for dramatic effect.

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Written by Gabrielle

October 5, 2010 at 5:06 am

Posted in grammar, podcasts

Tagged with , , ,

One Response

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  1. It’s hatd to find kbowledgeable people foor this topic,
    however, you seem like yyou know what you’retalkingabout!

    Thanks

    ville per ricevimenti

    October 11, 2014 at 12:53 pm


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