Gordon Bennet writes on Utne Reader about the overuse of the em-dash as an all too convenient punctuation mark, and condemns the neglect the simple pleasures of the semicolon. Is it neglect, or laziness, as he suggests? Or is the semicolon outdated and destined for oblivion?
And who knew there were more than one kind of dash? Not this English lit major! I’m embarrassed to admit that there are two, the em-dash and the en-dash, and I never knew. Obviously I’m not enough of a dedicated dash fan to pay close attention to the grammatical rules spelled out in The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. En-dash, em-dash, everywhere a dash-dash…
According to the Blue Book:
An en dash, roughly the width of an n, is a little longer than a hyphen. It is used for periods of time when you might otherwise use to.
An em dash, on the other hand, is roughly the width of an m. Use an em dash sparingly in formal writing. In informal writing, em dashes may replace commas, semicolons, colons, and parentheses to indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought.
Most authorities recommend using no spaces before or after en or em dashes, but I confess to freely violating that rule on visual grounds. To me it just looks better. If you’re using MS Word, if you put a space before and after the dash, it automatically becomes an em dash.
My husband started his working career as a typesetter, back in the Dark Ages when type was set by hand, and he tells me an em is a unit of measure in typography that defines the proportion of the letter width and height with respect to the point size of the current font being used. It was originally established as the width of the capital letter “M”, and since it is the same for all fonts at a given point size, one em in a 12 point typeface is 12 points. Simple, right?
So do we use dashes too often? The’re only supposed to be used in place of commas or parenthesis:
- instead of a colon before a list at the end of a sentenceI recommend three things to improve your writing – reading, writing, and rewriting.
- On both sides of additional information in the middle of a sentence, in stead of using parentheses or commasSusan – who has never been late – missed her plane this morning.
- or on both sides of added information when that information contains commas.Holly raced up the stairs and grabbed three socks – a red one, a black one, and a white one – before racing back the way she had come.
So there you have it – the down and dirty on dashes. So don’t be misusing the dash, and neglecting your colons and parentheses. And don’t even get me started on the differences between dashes and hyphens!
So are dashes overused? Here’s a challenge: Keep tabs on how often you use dashes. Are they really effective, or just a bad habit you’ve gotten into?