The Em Dash Divides – The New York Times

After the Oxford comma debate and the dying knell of the interval, the newest mark to outline and divide us — breaking apart our ideas, including emphasis to our convictions, alternately vexing and delighting readers — is the em sprint.

For some writers, the em sprint is a vice that their editors sometimes forgive however extra typically forbid. It has been duly forged as an alluring various to the comma, colon, semicolon and full cease within the “distracted boyfriend” meme.

The longest of the dashes — roughly the size of the letter “M” — the em sprint is emphatic, agile and nonetheless largely undefined. Sometimes it signifies an afterthought. Other instances, it’s a fist pump. You would possibly name it the dangerous boy, or cool lady, of punctuation. A freewheeling scofflaw. A insurgent and not using a clause.

Martha Nell Smith, a professor of English at Maryland Institute for Technology and the creator of 5 books on the poet Emily Dickinson (the unique em sprint obsessive), stated that Dickinson used the sprint to “highlight the ambiguity of the written word.”

“The dash is an invitation to the reader to make meaning,” Dr. Nell Smith stated. “It can also be a leap of faith.”

Grammarians don’t essentially see it that manner. Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s “Comma Queen” and the creator of “Between You and Me,” wrote in an e mail that the em sprint “could be substituted for nearly every other mark of punctuation — the comma, the semicolon, the colon, the interval, a pair of parentheses, the citation mark, even a bullet level within the making of an inventory.” Just don’t use greater than two in a sentence, in keeping with some experts.

The informal em dash also lends itself to the rapid, fragmented pace of digital communication. As such, it has begun popping up in texts, tweets and even Tinder messages.

“It’s this great piece of punctuation that gets at the emphasis of how people really talk,” said Rachel Holliday Smith, a reporter for The City and an active participant in em dash Twitter.

Cecelia Watson, the author of “Semicolon,” said that it has a kind of “urgency to it, almost like a little arrow that’s missing its arrowhead. It has that businessy but also breezy look to it. Nobody really gets intimidated by a dash.”

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.”

Which makes proper usage all the more attractive. Ricardo Magalhães, a developer for the e-commerce platform Shopify, once messaged a woman on OkCupid, remarking on the em dashes in her profile as a reflection of her prowess.

“I always notice them and when I see one, I think, ‘You know what you were doing and I respect that. You could have reached for a hyphen and called it a day,’” Mr. Magalhães said.

Emmy Jo Favilla, a brand voice manager at BuzzFeed, has publicly declared her love of the dash digitally (her Twitter handle is @em_dash3) and physically (a tattoo of the proofreader’s mark for the em dash sits behind her ear).

“There are few things more beautiful than a strategically placed em dash,” said Ms. Favilla, the former copy chief of BuzzFeed. “But many overuse the dash, which can weaken its effect and turn a paragraph into something resembling Morse code.”

Die-hards won’t hear it. “If anyone comes for an em dash and tries to say that it’s used too much, I’m willing to defend it with my life,” Ms. Holliday Smith said.

I didn’t realize my love for the em dash was personal until I was looking at a dating profile recently. Under things he’s “a fan of,” my potential match had listed “deleting em dashes,” between “diner booths” and “kink.”

Reader — I swiped left.

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