On Writing, Punctuation and Grammar

The Em Dash

This post is dedicated to my favorite punctuation mark—the em dash. Incidentally, an em dash is the punctuation mark that I typed just prior to its name in that last sentence and the one that I’m typing right here as well—that line separating one part of the text from another.

The em dash is also known as the long dash (as opposed to its relative, the en dash, or short dash, which has a very different function to be explained in a future post). An em dash can serve the same function as a comma, parenthesis, or colon, except that it adds an extra bit of emphasis to whatever follows it, or—in the case of a pair of em dashes—whatever text appears between them. In fact, that’s a good way of remembering how to use an em dash—the word emphasize begins with em, so use an em dash when you want a pause with some added emphasis.

For example, you can use an em dash like you would a comma to create a pause, as I did in the sentence above beginning with “Incidentally,” but it’s a slightly longer pause than a comma affords, placing more focus on the word or words that follow it. You can also use an em dash much as you would use a colon, to introduce something that explains or clarifies whatever precedes it, again, if you want to add that extra bit of emphasis to the word or words following it. I did this in the very first sentence of this post when I introduced my favorite punctation mark with the mark itself. Similarly, the sentence that I wrote above that contains two em dashes is an example of how a pair of them can act much like a pair of commas or parentheses would to set off the text between them. Em dashes are much more striking than commas or parentheses, so use them when you really want to draw the reader’s eye to the text that’s set apart. By contrast, if you’re adding a bit of text that isn’t as important (an afterthought, for instance), use parentheses instead.

Aside from the use cases mentioned above, there are a couple of additional instances when an em dash can be used that are specific to writing dialogue. You can use an em dash to indicate an interruption in a character’s speech, for example, “What the—?” Using an em dash in this way signals to the reader that the character’s sentence or thought was abruptly cut off. You can also break off part of a word in a character’s speech in this manner, such as, “What the f—?” Similarly to a pair of em dashes being used to insert a thought into a sentence, you can do the same when you’re interrupting a character’s dialogue with an action, without using speech tags like so-and-so said. An example of this is, “Hey”—she stepped between the man and her dog—”leave my dog alone!” Note that in instances like this, the dashes are not set inside in the quotation marks. I fully admit to writing constructions such as this one incorrectly; I always put the dashes inside the quotes.

Now that you know how to use an em dash, you might be wondering how to actually type one into your text. Well, unfortunately (in my opinion), the em dash isn’t exactly the easiest punctuation to type. If, like me, you work in a Mac OS, then you can typically just insert an em dash by typing two hyphens in succession on your keyboard (on a US keyboard, the hyphen key is located just to the right of the zero). I’ve found that this shortcut works in word processing programs, email, and when I’m typing on my iPhone. It doesn’t, however, work in WordPress, which means that if I want to use an em dash in a blog post like this one, I have to use this shortcut: Option+Shift+hyphen. In Windows applications, you can hold down the Alt key and the Shift key simultaneously along with the hyphen/minus key or hold down the Alt key, then press 0151 in sequence. Note that these shortcuts may not work on all types of computers or devices.

The correct way to format an em dash in your text is to place it right between the text with no spaces surrounding it. The only exception to this formatting is some writing that uses Associated Press (AP) publication style, such as news articles or magazines.

And that, gang, is all I’ve got on em dashes, except to say that, because they’re my favorite, you’ll obviously see a lot of them in my writing.

On Writing, Punctuation and Grammar

The Semicolon

This is the first of a new type of regular content you’ll be seeing from me addressing problematic punctuation and some of the more vexing grammar rules. Like weekly writing prompts, these posts will sadly—if only to me—be a departure from song and album titles because, frankly, there just aren’t a lot of songs about punctuation and grammar.

The subject of my debut post in this category is my second favorite punctuation mark—the semicolon (if you really want to know, my favorite punctuation mark is the long dash, aka “em” dash). Many writers are confused by semicolons; they either use this punctuation incorrectly or avoid using it altogether. And that sentence I just wrote, gang, was an example of how to correctly use a semicolon.

The primary function of a semicolon is to join two independent but related clauses into a single sentence, giving both of them equal weight or emphasis. An independent clause is a group of words that, by itself, makes up a complete sentence. In this case, the clause “Many writers are confused by semicolons” is a complete sentence in its own right. So is the second part of my sentence, “they either use this punctuation incorrectly or avoid using it altogether.” Both could be written as sentences by themselves. However, since my point in writing them as one was to convey the connection between these two ideas, I joined them using a semicolon.

Quite often, writers will fuse two clauses together using a comma instead of a semicolon. In the example I gave above, this would look like, “Many writers are confused by semicolons, they either use this punctuation incorrectly or avoid using it altogether.” This is an incorrect but very common use of a comma called a comma splice because you’ve used a comma to combine two independent thoughts instead of separating them into two sentences with a period or using the correct punctuation—a semicolon.

I mentioned that joining two independent clauses was the primary function of a semicolon, but it also has another usage. This may be perplexing, but a semicolon can actually serve the same role as a comma; however, it does so only in one very specific instance. If you have a list of items in a series that are already separated with commas, then you can use a semicolon to separate those series. An example of how to do this is the following: Aside from Alexandria, I have lived in my hometown, Stahlstown, PA; Kent, OH; and Arlington, VA. If I had used only commas in that sentence, it wouldn’t have been clear whether Stahlstown, PA, and my hometown were the same place or two different places.

I hope you’ve found this little piece on punctuation helpful. Keep an eye out for future posts elucidating some of the more confusing elements of grammar and punctuation.