the contextual life

thoughts without borders

the em dash—continued

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my guest, stephanie, works in publicity and as someone who spends a lot of time communicating through writing, i thought she might have a favorite punctuation mark. it turns out that stephanie is yet another em dash fan. her use of the em dash has, admittedly, increased over the years. its versatility and largely-unchallenged usage is at the root of her love for the mark.

the em dash, she feels, is there to set something off, to highlighting and emphasis what you’re about to say next. because the writer chooses what to highlight, stephanie feels that no other punctuation mark has as much freedom. plus, she says, “they look elegant”—especially when you leave out the space in between.

stephanie mentions the non-abstractness of the em dash, that it’s there to stop you in your tracks—a typographical speed bump—and that it’s function matches its appearance. although i look at it from a slightly different angle: that the em dash is there to lead you along—like the straightaway of a racetrack—we both seem to have come to the same conclusion: the em dash has a visual component that matches its meaning and that its meaning is varied.

as with mariam and rebecca, stephanie feels that the em dash evokes drama. interestingly, she has a theory that there might be a link between a person’s favorite punctuation mark and their personality. for example, she wonders if semicolon users are more refined and subtle than the em dashers who, like their chosen mark, might be a bit more dramatic. to test her hypothesis she plans to look out for big hand gestures.

listen to what else stephanie has to say about the em dash

If a period is a stop sign, then what kind of traffic flow is created by other marks? The comma is a speed bump; the semicolon is what a driver education teacher calls a ‘rolling stop’; the parenthetical expression is a detour; the colon is a flashing yellow light that announces something important up ahead; the dash is a tree branch in the road.

roy peter clark, writing tools: 50 essential strategies for every writer (2006)


Written by Gabrielle

November 13, 2010 at 10:42 am

Posted in grammar, podcasts

Tagged with ,

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