In Praise of the Em-Dash

Ben Yagoda:

So when should you use the dash? Writers who deploy this mark comfortably and adeptly (rather than haphazardly) are conscious of the rhythm and dynamics of a sentence. A well-placed dash adds energy and voice. The period is sometimes referred to as a “full stop,” and I think of the dash as fully a three-quarters stop. It proposes a long pause — slightly longer than a parenthesis, significantly longer than a comma — that in a subtle way calls attention to itself; as the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has remarked, dashes are primarily found in “genres that permit reference to be made to the act of composition, whether the break indicated by the dash is genuine or artful invention…” (In other words, be wary of using them in an international treaty or a scientific paper.)

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