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.
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.