The em dash: The most chivalrous punctuation mark ever

Are you using the em dash—also known as the long dash—correctly? Are you even using it at all? The author explains why and how you should employ it.

In the book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” plucky Lynne Truss describes punctuation as “a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling.”

With this in mind, I would name the em dash as the most chivalrous punctuation mark of all time.

As I often explain to punctuation newbies, em dashes (or long dashes) are used to indicate a pronounced interruption or break in thought. They should be used sparingly and only when another punctuation mark (such as a comma or colon) will not suffice. For example:

The best use of an em dash I have ever seen was in an issue of my alumni association newsletter. The article was introducing the newest longhorn selected to serve as Bevo, the University of Texas mascot. A brief family history of the animal included this sentence: “Bevo’s father was killed when he was struck by lighting—his hooves and horns were blown right off—leaving Bevo an orphan.”

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