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.
Language is always evolving. The way we speak in 2018 will not at all be the way we speak in 2068, much in the same way that we don’t currently speak the way people did in 1318. The evolution of language is a fabulous thing; it reflects our capacity to adapt and change when presented with new information, and allows for the progress of the human species. But change is painfully slow, and the progress of language is especially hindered because of the irritating culture of linguistic gatekeeping. There are people in the world who take immense pride in their supposed mastery of the English language, to the point of being downright snobbish toward people who either have not had the privilege of an English language education or simply reject the idea that it is necessary to take grammar so seriously.
One of the current linguistic debates is over the use of “they” as a singular pronoun. In recent years, people have become much more attentive to the pronouns used to refer to others. Slowly, effort is being made to ask first before calling someone “she” or “he,” and while the question may seem small or unnecessary, it’s really not. Simply asking for someone’s pronouns indicates respect for the person being spoken to, acknowledgement of their right to determine their own identity, and reinforces that appearance cannot be and has never been the sole indicator of one’s gender, and truthfully, it never has been, but now people are starting to notice.
Image via Gender Free World
But even those who have gotten far enough to recognize the necessity of asking for pronouns may not have expanded their horizons far enough to include genders outside of the binary male-female system. In other words, even if you have recognized that the gender binary is not what you’ve been told it is, you may not know what exists outside of that binary.
Not everyone in this world is either a man or a woman, and even if one is a man or a woman, one’s relation to or expression of that identity may not be exclusive to traditional gender-based limitations.
These people may accept she or he pronouns, but many exclusively accept “they.” Which is fine. There is absolutely no personal sacrifice required to refer to a person by the pronoun by which they have told you they will be referred to. But of course, some people just gotta be difficult.
Image via Beyond the Binary
There is a alarming number of people in the world who are so hung up on the “rules” that they are completely dismissing the importance of using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. There is an even more alarming number of people who are fully cognizant of the importance of gender-neutral pronouns and use their conception of rigid grammar to disrespect and insult non-binary people.
To be clear, even if the singular they was incorrect, it would not matter. Language is capable of evolving, and if we use “they” as a singular pronoun, it is a singular pronoun. Every single word we speak today was once new and never-before-used. Many of our words mean something entirely different today than they did when they entered the lexicon. Words are invented and once invented, evolve further to fill the gaps in our language. We have words because we need them, and when a new linguistic gap presents itself, we improvise.
For example, have you ever wondered why English doesn’t have a plural second-person pronoun to compare to “you”? In the absence of such a pronoun, we resort to using “y’all,” “youse,” “yinz,” and the technically more correct, but clunky, “you all.” The answer is actually hiding in plain sight.
Back in the olden times (very olden, we’re talking like Shakespeare’s era), “you” was the plural pronoun. If you were speaking to one person, you’d address them as “thou.” That is, you would, unless you were speaking to royalty. It is not unusual to perceive and address a monarch as being plural; recall Queen Victoria’s famous line, “We are not amused.”
“Thou” eventually fell out of use in the 17th century due to being perceived as impolite. Therefore, if you have any qualms about “they” as a singular pronoun, then it would behoove you to start thou-ing people, lest you be taken for a hypocrite.
Image via Smithsonian Magazine
Aside from the historical evolution of language, the singular they is also defended by its formidable ally, Merriam-Webster.
If you grew up in the US in the past forty years, you probably can’t say “conjunction” without then singing an entire song. We all have a show called Schoolhouse Rock! to thank for that. Covering topics like math, U.S. history and politics, science, and, of course, grammar, Schoolhouse Rock! has been an important part of every teacher’s toolbox—especially if they want three minutes of rest.
For kids, though, Schoolhouse Rock! nestles into their heads. I’m not sure if it’s a great way to teach, but the show turned out some killer tracks. Setting aside the grammar songs for a second, “I’m Just a Bill” and “Three Is a Magic Number” are straight classics. The grammar songs deserve especial thanks for their contributions to our collective mastery of the English language.
1. “A Noun Is a Person, Place or Thing”
Written by Lynn Ahrens (Academy Award-winning songwriter for Anastasia), this is a catchy, Dolly Parton-esque tune that walked me through what exactly a noun was. The song calls out to then-relevant musical acts like The Beatles and Monkees, and it’s just very endearing.
2. “Conjunction Junction”
This bluesy song would have been written by Randy Newman if someone had called him. Kidding, but really, it sounds like a Randy Newman song. Also, if you know Schoolhouse Rock!, then you know this song.
3. “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here”
In this song, three generations of the Lolly family own and operate a store that apparently sells adverbs. I’m not sure it’s a sound business model, but they do have a great jingle. Also, I think whoever was animating this had a tough time drawing faces head-on because all of the faces are facing sideways.
4. “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla”
That’s a name. This song’s great, and it’s all about pronouns. Also, it features a girl falling in love with an aardvark. The aardvark shares the love. It’s very Shape of Water-esque.
“Hey, that’s not fair, giving a guy a shot down there!” Reginald says, after being injects in the butt by a mysterious doctor, without the doctor even introducing himself. Without even a hello, the doctor sticks little Reginald with a needle in his buttocks. But besides that, this song is also about interjections. Yikes!
The sheer amount of verbs out there will discombobulate you, if you stop and cogitate. Seriously, cogitate for a moment with me about all the words in the English language that nobody uses. Maybe they’re archaic or obsolete or slang, but they still mean the thing they’re meant to mean.
I wondered then what obscure verbs are out there that we often overlook. I’ve done some digging, and I’ve uncovered twelve. I think you’ll enjoy them, and you may even find room in your daily life to revivify these misunderstood verbs! All definitions courtesy of Wiktionary.
1. Bibble – To eat and/or drink noisily
2. Impignorate – To pledge or pawn
“Impignorate? I’ve got a friend who’s an expert on those, mind if I call him in?” |Image Via Gold &Silver Pawn Shop
3. Obambulate – To walk about, to wander aimlessly
4. Absquatulate – To leave quickly or in a hurry
5. Disembogue – To come out into the open sea from a river