My love for em dashes is so powerful that, if converted into energy, it could power this website through the upcoming and inevitable nuclear apocalypse. When I asked my coworkers what they thought of em dashes, staff writer Nathaniel Lee asked, “the pretentious dash?” Our CEO, Scott Richmond, added, “the only reason I don’t use them is that they’re too long. It’s all about the space conservation.” Much like my esteemed coworker, he is wrong.*
Let’s go back to grammar school, so y’all can get grammar SCHOOLED.
Parentheses. These are the basic bitches of the grammar world. If they were a statement piece, the statement would be no comment. Parentheses set aside parenthetical phrases—that is, phrases that are unnecessary for the meaning of the sentence. Commas and em dashes accomplish the same task, but em dashes get the points for sheer panache, baby! The whole point of parentheses is that they de-emphasize the nonessential phrase you’re setting aside. Example: Nasopharyngitis (the common cold) may be impossible to eradicate. Nobody’s that excited about the common cold. Come on.
Commas. These are just store-brand em dashes, watered down versions without all that spicy flavor. The comma is a neutral syntactical choice. You’ve heard of the dramatic pause? Get ready for the anticlimactic pause. Example: My girlfriend, a phenomenal cook, made a delicious sandwich. Is it newsworthy that your girlfriend is a phenomenal cook? Unlikely. My girlfriend—Belletrist babe and notorious reader Emma Roberts—made a delicious sandwich. Now, there’s a parenthetical phrase that would transcend commas. (Also, call me, Emma.)
Em dashes. Let’s consider what ‘nonessential’ actually means. Technically, stylistic choices like leopard print coats and pink hair are nonessential. But when you walk into a room, don’t they get the job done? Hell yeah. The air horn of the punctuation world, the em dash does the same thing as parentheses and commas but with an entirely different tone. Example: My sister—who slept with my husband—just asked me for money. Let’s try again: My sister (who slept with my husband) just asked me for money. Did this happen? No. If it did, would I have used an em dash to relay the info? You know it.
Image Via Grammarly
That being said, even my beloved em dash is not perfect. You know how books sometimes start off with sound effects? Bang. My ex-husband was dead. Wham! My sixteenth birthday, the day of the Trial that would determine my whole future, began when my jealous sister slapped me with my own Timesetter. You get the message. You can’t start off a book with bang! Wham! Crash! Boom! You could, but it would be annoying—and it’s possible you’re annoyed already. Similarly, you can’t fill an article with em dashes (though if you click anything by Krisdee Dishmon, you’ll realize I’ve certainly tried).
Time for Q&A. The major question people have seems to be ‘aren’t these interchangeable?’ That, of course, is a subcategory of all the more pressing questions. ‘Isn’t grammar pointless? Will someone ever want to date you?’ The answer to all three, as you might be shocked to learn, is a resounding NO.
Image Via Translabo Berlin WordPress
For the same reason that you wouldn’t use an exclamation point to conclude an uneventful sentence, you wouldn’t use an em dash for a job that parentheses can do. Can you? Sure. Should you? I say no. As Josh from Drake and Josh would say, it’s for emphasis. EMPHASIS! (Click here if you don’t get that reference.)
You may be wondering whether or not I have a right to this opinion: a passion for em dashes that, if converted into a numeric value, would dwarf the GDP of even the wealthiest nations. Yes, I do. They may not have hired me at my local coffee shop, but, as a creative writing graduate and former English teacher / SAT grammar tutor, I am good for something—even if that thing is yelling on the Internet.
*I respect you very much, Scott. I just also respect the commanding presence of the em dash.
Featured Image Via Radix Communications