Overusing Em Dashes

Em dashes are overused, and overusing them is the mark of a hack writer. Or so goes the conventional wisdom.

In case you’re asking wondering what I’m talking about, an em dash is a long dash—like that. The name is a typographer’s term: An em dash is the same width as the upper-case letter m. They’re often meant to indicate an interruption, a pause, a break in one’s train of thought.

Like many other things, em dashes can be overused; if you find yourself using more than a handful of them on a page, then maybe you have a problem. Maybe.

(There’s a similar dash called the en dash that’s the width of the upper-case letter n. It’s often used to indicate ranges, like this: “If you have more than 1–2 dashes in a sentence, that’s almost certainly too many,” said the self-important editor.)

Dashes, parentheses, elipses… all can be overused. Too many dashes makes you sound disjointed. Too many parentheses? Lack of focus. Overuse of anything can be indicative of clumsy—even sloppy—writing. But all of these constructs can be used well. They can even be overused skillfully; there are writers who overuse all this stuff as a matter of style.

We’re currently in the middle of a fad for writing naturally, a fashion of writing in the way people “naturally” talk. We take this for granted, to the point that books written even fifty years ago can be difficult for us to read. We expect to read books that sound like they might be transcribed verbatim from someone telling us a story in a bookstore or a bar.

One way writers achieve this is by interrupting themselves a little, and introducing slight inefficiencies in the narrative. It makes it all sound more real, yes? But this kind of style can become and end in and of itself, and too many “interruptions” can lead to disjointed prose.

Fortunately, there’s a simple test to tell if an em dash is really the right sort of punctuation to use. Can you replace the dash with anything else?

Pairs of em dashes—like this—can often be replaced by rewriting the sentence as two sentences. (Not in that case, though. Or not easily.) And if you have one em dash indicating interruption—that’s probably a good use of the em dash. (But not right there. A comma would have done the job just as well.) Sometimes, you can perform an em dash-ectomy by ending one sentence and starting another. Or by starting a new paragraph.

My copy of The Elements of Typographical Style tells me that em dashes are a remnant of Victorian typography, and we should instead be using the shorter en dash, set with spaces on either side. But, as much as I love this book, I think that Mr. Bringhurst is behind the times here. Em dashes, used sparingly, can be startling and effective. And an aesthetic is a personal thing.

Sometimes, em dashes add a hint of excitement to writing, an air of breathlessness, and that’s fine. Overuse of dashes sometimes comes about when people try to duplicate the disjointed way that people talk, but that’s not always the best thing to aim for. With a little thought, you can use em dashes sparingly, naturally, and effectively.


Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit.

He’s also the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, who are performing in Somerset, New Jersey in a couple of weeks; he rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when the mood strikes him.

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9 thoughts on “Overusing Em Dashes

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  1. While I appreciate that bloggers are becoming a little looser with the English language, there are still rules that are in place for a reason.

    Now, I want to make a distinction. There is a serious difference between a blogger and a writer. A blogger has a tendency to indulge in abbreviated speech, conversational style of writing, and a gross misuse of punctuation. A writer holds the golden rule of writing above all else. KISS, or keep is simple silly. Simple is usually the fastest track to clarity in writing. That stands as one of the big five, along with focus. Those are among a few clear cut distinctions between the two.

    But, here is where the writer and the blogger make a hybrid kind of writer. Punctuation is extremely important in terms of clarity of writing. Personally, I detest run-on sentences. But, I can appreciate a fragmented sentence in terms of writing style. This is saying that it is well placed and not among many. I can also appreciate the gratitutous use of commas, again, if they are well placed. As for dashes, those should be used sparingly.

    I don’t fancy myself a fantastic writer, however, I will distinguish myself among bloggers. I prefer a narrative style consisting of monologues and dialogues. I am not exactly attempting to speak to an audience, as much as I am trying to tell a story. Often, it turns into prose. And that affords a greater deal of flexibility when it comes to breaking rules to serve style and readability.

    Your thoughts?

    1. LunaSunshine, Thanks for the response. My point was that writers that are overusing em dashes are sometimes doing so to create an air of casualness, of writing as one speaks. You bring up some interesting points, and a few that confused me. Please forgive me if I split up what you wrote:

      While I appreciate that bloggers are becoming a little looser with the English language…

      I’m not sure what you mean by this; the article has nothing to do with any so-called differences between a blogger and a writer. While I’ve been known to take a few potshots at bloggers myself, I’ve lately come to believe that it’s far too easy a target. (For example, see the point “Why are you calling blog posts ‘articles’?” on this page.) And there are also some very literate, well-spoken bloggers.

      I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that, if one subscribes to a descriptivist view of the English language, the way English is used on the net will eventually leak its way into the mainstream and become “standard”. As a professional who appreciates a well-written phrase, I may find this slightly painful, but that doesn’t matter. I comfort myself by thinking that my attitude towards netspeak is analogous to how 19th-century editor would felt after reading a modern-day opinion column in The New York Times.

      …there are still rules that are in place for a reason.

      EM dash use is, for the most part, a matter of style, not rules. A prescriptivist might disagree with me, but there are very few hard and fast rules in English. If you can cite to me a rule about em dashes, I’d love to see it.

      But, here is where the writer and the blogger make a hybrid kind of writer. Punctuation is extremely important in terms of clarity of writing. Personally, I detest run-on sentences. But, I can appreciate a fragmented sentence in terms of writing style. This is saying that it is well placed and not among many. I can also appreciate the gratuitous use of commas, again, if they are well placed. As for dashes, those should be used sparingly.

      Bloggers are writers. Some of them are fairly traditional writers, some of them are quite casual, and some are (frankly) terrible writers. But you can also find terrible writing in magazines and newspapers. The chief difference is that writers in traditional media have editors, and they have less of an excuse for substandard writing. I suspect that if a lot of bloggers had editors, they’d be producing better blog posts Indeed, that’s kind of the point of this entire blog. A professional editor reads through the posts before they’re published. (Ahem.) Admittedly, the editor’s posts don’t always have an editor, an irony that has not escaped me. (Cough.)

      Run-on sentences are often the easiest thing to fix. The hard part is spotting them in your own writing!

      I don’t fancy myself a fantastic writer, however, I will distinguish myself among bloggers. I prefer a narrative style consisting of monologues and dialogues. I am not exactly attempting to speak to an audience, as much as I am trying to tell a story. Often, it turns into prose. And that affords a greater deal of flexibility when it comes to breaking rules to serve style and readability.

      All I can say about breaking rules is that it usually doesn’t hurt to try it. At the worst, people will vilify and tear you apart, but it’s far more likely that they will ignore you because they can’t understand what you’re saying. But if nobody tried to break the rules, there would be no progress or art.

      However, using shorter pieces to gain confidence in your style first is advisable. Use those articles or vignettes as a sort of laboratory of language. If everyone restricted themselves to a conventional style, we would have no Kurt Vonnegut, no Virginia Woolf. And we’d be poorer for it.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and please keep reading!

    2. LunaSunshine,

      Yesterday, I spent over ten hours working on the first draft of my next blog post, an essay of about 1200 words. I will spend a few more hours today revising, debating with myself, rechecking my sources and refining my sentences in preparation to publish the essay at a minute after midnight on Wednesday. I’ve already posted a question to a group of writers about a finer point of punctuation and sent drafts to Neil and AskCeil for feedback.

      A blog is just the publication medium.

      1. Yes, that is true. A blog is a medium for publication. This is among many medium. I am not saying that each person who writes a blog is a “blogger”. There is a phenomenon of people who feel the need to broadcast their every waking thought without any editing. This happened along with the rise of social media. That is the population I would term a “blogger”. It is like making a distinction between a journal and a diary.

  2. I am glad you wrote this, but you are overlooking a huge reason em dashes show up in my writing and the writing of other “hack” writers: Microsoft Office products such as Outlook and Word do an auto-correct of en dashes to em dashes. I was too busy writing to notice this a couple of years ago. You should probably mention *that* as a great way to avoid the em dash unnecessarily.

    1. Good point. I’ve turned off autocorrect in Word for reasons similar to this—it’s too easy for stuff like this to sneak by. And having edited you, I can assure you that you do not overuse dashes!

  3. From what I’ve observed in my travels in the blogosphere, many writers attempt to compensate for a lack of substance by peppering their pieces with parentheses, dashes and semicolons in order to try and engage the reader. Sometimes it works, but more often than not it just leaves you shaking your head.

    Thank you for sharing this piece. As a odd coincidence, I just realised I’ve used an em dash for the first time (as far as I can recall) in the article I’m publishing on Valentine’s Day!

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