The Versatile and Sexy Em Dash

Over the last century there has been a steady decline in the use of the semicolon. Just go back to some of the classics and you’ll see how common having periods resting on commas used to be. Some acclaimed twentieth-century authors have even gone as far as rejecting semicolons. George Orwell didn’t like them. Donald Barthelme wrote that semicolons are “ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly.” Kurt Vonnegut claimed that the first rule of creative writing was “do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.”

That’s a pretty sound renouncing!

I stand on the side of those who choose to use the semicolon only in the narrowest of senses. To be honest, whenever I see a semicolon, I cringe. A lot of the time, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, it seems the semicolon only exists to “show you’ve been to college.” It seems that a vast majority of the time when it is used it is simply connecting two complete sentences. Why not just create two separate sentences?

For those times when there is just a clause following the semicolon, there is an alternative. It is what I definitely prefer — the em dash. This isn’t a new revolution we are talking about here. Back in the nineteenth century, the em dash counted Emily Dickenson among its fans.

The semicolon has been used as what could be called a “super-comma.” The most common uses have been:

  • To unite closely connected sentences. For example: “Janet experienced the prescription’s side effects; she was dizzy and nauseous for hours.”
  • To give a heftier pause than a comma would. This use is discretionary. A comma (or an em dash, hint, hint) would do, but a stronger stop is needed. For example: “Reports of the damage caused by the hurricane were greatly exaggerated; indeed, the storm was not a “hurricane” at all.”
  • Within a list that also has commas. For example: “The parties in the custody case were Charlie, the child; Hank Thomas, the biological father; and Sam and Clara Smith, the adoptive parents.”

I believe that the only time a semicolon trumps the em dash is in the above third bullet point. Using em dashes in this situation would make for an unwieldy sentence. With the first two examples, we can just as easily exchange the semicolon for a period, capitalize the following word and create two sentences.

The em dash is used to mark an interruption in the structure of a sentence. More specifically, it can be used:

  • To set off an inserted phrase that, because of what it modifies, needs to go in the middle of a sentence. Example: “In America — as elsewhere — free speech is confined to the dead.”
  • To set off a parenthetical phrase that you want to highlight. Example: ”They say — the baseball experts, that is — that it will get easier for me to hit a fastball as I get more practice.”
  • To add an important afterthought. Example: “It was December when the union workers buried him — the winter solstice.”
  • In place of commas, colons and parentheses.

The em dash gives a cleaner and stronger pause when it is needed than a semicolon does. We do need to be careful not to overuse the em dash, though. There shouldn’t be more than one usage in a sentence. Some people say no more than one usage in an entire paragraph. I wouldn’t go that far, but too many em dashes make for difficult reading, which is the opposite of what we want.

Quite often I see writers using consecutive hyphens or simply a single hyphen to represent an em dash. This doesn’t look good. The reason for it is there isn’t an em dash key on the QWERTY keyboard. But there’s no need to fear — the ALT-key combination is here! Just hold down the ALT key while entering the numbers 0151, and you will have yourself one of those long dashes.

The em dash is versatile and sexy. Compare that to the stodgy, old semicolon. As for me, I’ll take the former. I’m not saying don’t use the semicolon. Just try to use it in a more judicious manner. I say, let the em dash shine.