Correct Uses of an Em Dash
THE EM DASH SUBLIME
When you start writing critically acclaimed bestsellers and winning National Book Awards, like Harbach, McCann, and Franzen, experiment; use, even create, unorthodox punctuation to transcend, as Tom Wolfe and James Joyce once did, to fascinate us. With syntax and deft punctuation, fine writers control us by setting our pace to their timing. The sentences below illustrate the private domain of em dashes, where other punctuation dare not enter. In each example, the author sharply breaks his sentence and nicely splices the pieces back together with em dashes:
Schwartz was watching the field too, initially—Arsch took a called strike—but his eyes quickly fell to the concrete floor.
She hated him, the husband—she got caught up in this marriage young—and still she’s got his picture on the bookcase.
Joey, having discovered that their lake was unidentified on local maps—it was really just a large pond, with one other house on it—had christened it Nameless, and Patty pronounced the name tenderly, sentimentally, “our Nameless Lake.”
ONE DASH OR THREE
What the Chicago Manual of Style calls a “defining or enumerating complementary element,” i.e., a phrase that illuminates a point at the end of a sentence, may be set off with one em dash or a comma; but an em dash pops the point, as Harbach illustrates in this sentence:
He looked, for a moment, wildly old—a decade older than his literal age, two decades older than his usual self.
Most references warn against using more than one set of em dashes in a sentence, but in his classic novel Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis uses three to pull us into the dialogue:
“My name’s Ad Locust—Jesus, think of it, the folks named me Adney—can you beat that—ain’t that one hell of a name for a fellow that likes to get out with the boys and have a good time!”
HOW TO MAKE AN EM DASH
Although it might be there soon, the em dash is not on your keyboard. To create one, type a word, leave no space, hit the hyphen (“-”) key twice, and, again with no space, type the following word. Microsoft Word will automatically stretch your em dash to the appropriate length.
Unless the asteroid is closer than we thought and Bruce Willis has retired, I will be back next week for the inside scoop on the en dash and the hyphen. Please tell everyone you know—we have not a moment to lose.