December 11, 2019

The Em Dash Divides

Which is why the em dash appears in so many contexts: lyrical fiction, news briefs, movie titles. It can sit at any table in the cafeteria. Whereas the hyphen and en dash (a midlength dash, roughly the length of the letter “n,” commonly used to indicate range) have specific use cases, the em dash contains multitudes.

But not everyone is a fan. Online, opinions abound about how and when one ought to use the thin horizontal line. The takes can be surprisingly emotional.

Last week, when the author Alexander Chee tweeted, “Em-dash is the ‘just belt it and go’ of punctuation. Thus my devotion to it,” he inspired replies from legions of devotees.

Earlier this year, the writer Laura van den Berg confessed in her own tweet that, “after years of resistance,” she had fallen “into headlong love with the em dash. I love the way it can create the feeling of a fractured/incomplete/interrupted line or thought.”

Gretchen McCulloch, the author of “Because Internet,” described the em dash’s tone as “faux casual,” since it takes some know-how to implement in digital conversation. There isn’t an em dash button on a standard keyboard, she said, so “you have to go to extra effort.” That may mean shortcuts, or worse: copying and pasting em dashes from previously published work.

Those who don’t know better might use two successive hyphens to indicate an em dash-like interruption. In her book, “Type Rules!”, Ilene Strizver describes this as a “typographically incorrect and downright ugly practice.”

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