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A Less Common Mark:
Or Why You Should Stop Worrying and Love the Em Dash

by Ben Unglesbee 


 

                Busted. Yes, you all guessed correctly, I don't work for Merriam-Webster's Style Guide, and I didn't bring you all here—at least not in an official capacity—to consult for the 2017 edition. I should have known that I couldn't fool a room full of teachers.

                So, I don't have the Webster company's money to throw at you in return for your services, and I apologize if you got that impression from the query letter I sent. Does it matter how I got Webster's letterhead, Professor Dorkfin? As you'll see, your presence is not for nothing. Now that I have you all here, I want us to troubleshoot what I consider to be the great punctuation crucible of our time, and I assure you we will be sending our work to Webster's along with several other style guides. By the end of this session, I hope to have a letter—signed by some of the most distinguished primary, secondary and post-secondary educators in the country—i.e., you folks—and you too, Larry—urging the world's grammar elite to end their arbitrary and pedantic restrictions on the em dash and replace them with—none at all.

                I see the light of remembrance in your eyes.

                I brought you all here because you have in turn tried to steer me away from the em dash in the course of my education.

                Mr. Bleecher, you called the em dash the “laziest punctuation outside of none at all, and maybe worse than none.” Ring a bell?

                Ms. Hoffendaus, you told our AP English class that the em was “the punctuation mark of an unsound mind.” And then you looked—a little too long—at me.  Mr. Uplord, you just came right out and described me as a “a dithering Jack Kerouac wannabe with more dashes than words” in my essays. Fair point—but not really. I never wanted to be Kerouac. I wanted to be Ginsberg. Less complain-y, but still a man of many dashes.

                Ms. Yulewort, you tyrant—excuse me, I didn't mean that. And might I point out my retraction would have little meaning without that crisp turn of emotion afforded by that simple line. It affords text a cough, as we choke on our own feeling. The dash is regret itself, an act of conscience, if a tad tardy. Let me try again: Ms. Yulewort, you instated an arbitrary and draconian rule allowing just two em dashes—two!—per essay and then docked one point for every dash after that. You fascist!—pardon. I wonder which two dashes Emily Dickinson, that patron saint of the dash, would have chosen for “Hope is the thing with feathers” had she written it for your class—?

                It gets worse—and by “it” I mean life—life among the dash haters. Prof. Dorkfin, you sent my thesis back three times for dash removal, specifically. When all but three were gone—three dashes in a 200-page thesis about the dash in American literature—you still refused to approve it. You said it “lacked substance—excluding excrement.” You see? Even you, Prof. Dorkfin—you talk in dashes, and surely you think in them too, even if you don't acknowledge their legitimacy. Ironic—no?

                Larry, you fired me from the only job I've ever had with health insurance because you said there was no place for the em dash in home appliance user manuals. You were sick of editing them from my copy. I'm sure you've since found some serf to punctuate on your terms, but you're lying to your customers by leading them to believe that their toasters and Kurig machines are as straightforward as all those commas and periods suggest. And good luck getting their attention when writing about possible malfunctions and mishaps. There may well be blood on your hands, sir—but not on mine. 

                When you teachers of young minds—and Larry—tell us to use dashes sparingly, you are saying all of our half-thoughts are worthless, that our sudden turns of heart should be ignored. Truth is—I tried to give up the dash. My friends said my Facebook posts were unreadable. An ex-girlfriend got so mixed up by a dashed-through love letter she thought it was a breakup note in Morse code. In my lowest moments I couldn't complete a sentence—not a one.  And so I resolved to do as Strunk and White instruct, to use it as a complement to a complete sentence, not in place of one. Actually, they say this of the dash: that it is “a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.” They say to use it  “only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.” Well, what if the more common marks always seem inadequate?

                I realized perhaps my judgment was broken somehow, so I resolved to make my separation with the dash. Give them up like a reformed alcoholic giving up the thing he can't get enough of. It didn't work. All I did was slide into a hell of more common marks: ellipticals, semicolons and parentheses, commas. I might as well have been writing in Sanskrit... You see, the dash was never the problem. The problem was—me. I didn't need weaning of the dash, but a vacation and lots of reflection so that I could know what I actually wanted to say, if anything. And sometimes I find I have nothing to say—and so I don't write at all. Prof. Dorkfin, that was more or less your advice to me.

                If there's a lesson here, it's that sometimes we should focus on fixing the person, not the punctuation. Today I still use the dash, less than before but more than you would have me. And no one's been hurt. Our language has not devolved into a barely-more-than-random sequence of grunts and barks.

                So I ask that you reconsider your positions.  I thought we could all collaborate on letters to the publishers of Webster—but since you all are looking a bit restless, perhaps you would like to sign letters I've already taken the trouble to write. Prof. Dorkin—wonderful! You can be the first. I wouldn't have thought you'd be so eager to sign, given our history. You're not—I see—well no need to angry about it—or physical—hey!—that hurts—unhand me or—


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