Monday, July 20, 2020

What's Your Favorite Punctuation Mark?

by Sandy Tritt

What’s your favorite punctuation mark?
Until recently, I had never thought about having a favorite punctuation mark—although I admit I’ve always had an affinity for those cute little curly commas. (And I have a distinct dislike for the colon and the semicolon: they remind me of too many late nights spent typing academic papers on my state-of-the-art Brother Electric Typewriter.) But the mark that really brings me joy is the EM DASH. This little guy has become more popular as of late—mainly because he’s versatile and, I’m told, “hipster.”

So, how can you hang out with the cool kid?
Lots of ways. He can be used in place of commas, parentheses, colons, semi-colons, or ellipses. He can offset phrases, show interruption or a change of direction, offer examples, or add emphasis. And he can be used to show missing words or parts of words. See why I love Mr. Dash?

Let’s look at ways he can help.  

An EM DASH can add clarity to a convoluted sentence. Examples:
  • Before: “When the check finally arrived, over six weeks after the accident, it was only for the parts, labor, and other repairs.” After: “When the check finally arrived—over six weeks after the accident—it was only for the parts, labor, and other repairs.”
  • Before: “Don’t start baking brownies if you don’t have everything you need, like a pan, an oven, and ingredients, including eggs, butter, sugar, cocoa, and nuts.” After: “Don’t start baking brownies if you don’t have everything you need, like a pan, an oven, and ingredients—including eggs, butter, sugar, cocoa, and nuts.”
  • Before: “Before we go camping on Sunday, we need to make sure we have plenty of ice, hamburger buns, marshmallows for s’mores and fruit salad, olives, and onions.” After: “Before we go camping on Sunday, we need to make sure we have plenty of ice, hamburger buns, marshmallows—for s’mores and fruit salad—olives, and onions.”
An EM DASH can indicate a sudden break or change in continuity. Examples:
  • “I don’t want to ever see—what is that thing crawling up your shirt?”
  • “I—uh—I just don’t know.”
An EM DASH can delineate a non-essential phrase within a sentence (non-essential means the sentence will still be a sentence without the phrase). Do note that if the phrase occurs in the middle of a sentence, both a beginning and an ending EM DASH must be used. Examples:
  • “Just as I was about to sit—and I do mean just—I saw the spider.”
  • “I decided to burn that ratty old sweater—until Jason said it was his favorite.”
Likewise, an EM DASH can be used to set apart an explanatory phrase. Examples:
  • “I love reading novels—fat, juicy, long-winded novels—while on vacation.”
  • “We need to get a first aid kit—bandages, antiseptic wipes, splints—for the cheerleading squad.”
An EM DASH can join two independent clauses. It’s a modern replacement for the semicolon, joining two related sentences that could each stand alone. Examples:
  • “We could sure use some rain this week—this heat is killing the garden.”
  • “I absolutely love old romantic movies—I get that from my mama.”
An EM DASH can add emphasis. Examples:
  • “I don’t want to see that jerk in here again—ever!”
  • “Can we forget the whole thing—please?”
An EM DASH can show interruption. Whereas ellipses at the end of a sentence illustrates a dropping off in tone or a pause, the EM DASH shows an immediate halt.
  • Either all in one sentence or by one speaker: “Hey!  Don’t step on the—oh, crap. Too late.”
  • By multiple speakers:  “You never let me finish. All you do is—” “No, I don’t!”
  • By an outside force: “Please quit fidgeting. We’re almost—” The doorbell rang.
An EM DASH can indicate an unfinished sentence or thought. Examples:
  • “I hope that isn’t a snake—”
  • “Is that car coming in my lane? There’s nowhere to—”
Where to find Mr. EM DASH
So now that you’ve grown to love Mr. EM DASH, you may discover that he simply doesn’t exist on the standard keyboard. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to create him. Let me count the ways:
  • Within most Word Processing programs (and iPhones), you can create an EM DASH automatically by typing two hyphens side by side.
  • MS Word will change two hyphens to an EM DASH as long as there is no space before, between, or after the hyphens. The metamorphosis appears after typing the next word or letter and then pressing the space bar.
  • If that’s too complex, in many programs, you can click on the toolbar below the edit box. Place your cursor where you want the EM DASH, select INSERT from the pull-down menu, and click on the second character (the longer dash).
  • In MS Word, you can click on the INSERT tab, look at the far right and click on SYMBOL, select MORE SYMBOLS, click on SPECIAL CHARACTERS, and—finally—click on the EMDASH (right at the top).
Too many steps? Give one of these a try:
  • In Windows on a PC, type ALT 0151  
  • For a Mac, use OPT  SHIFT  -
  • Simply copy an EM DASH from anywhere and paste it where you need it.
Other things to know:
  • In most usages (Chicago Manual of Style, etc.), no spaces should exist before or after an EM DASH. The most common exception to this is the Associated Press Stylebook (such as for newspapers), which adds a space on either side of the EM DASH.
  • The EM DASH is mostly used in informal writing—blogs, novels, emails, etc.—and is typically used sparingly in formal writing (magazine articles, academic papers, business letters, etc.).
  • There are three “dashes” in the dash family. The HYPHEN is the baby. It’s the smallest of the lengths and is used to join two words. The EN DASH is longer than a hyphen and is used to show a range—such as 3-4 years—or to attach a prefix, such as pre-Civil War era. And then there’s the EM DASH, the largest, the longest, the greatest. Aren’t you glad you’ve met him?
  • Mr. Dash got his name back in the old days when typesetters measured the number of points in a line. An EN DASH was considered to be the same width of the letter N—and, the EM DASH was considered to be the same width as the letter M.
So, tell us, what’s your favorite punctuation? Why?
And, of course, if you need help straightening out those cute little curly commas or making the most out of Mr. Dash, just shoot us off an email at