I recently participated in a fiction-writing class in which students were encouraged to write comments on one another’s work. Most of the comments were helpful (or at least food for thought)—one story I submitted to the class was told from the point of view of a teenage girl, and getting feedback from people who had been teenage girls was necessary. (I may post that story in this space one day.)
But there was one comment from a fellow student that made me roll my eyes and discard all of his comments. That comment was “You use too many em dashes.” This statement does three things I hate:
- It questions my authority in the area of using punctuation (one of the few areas in which I feel confident of my expertise).
- It authoritatively states a “rule” of grammar and usage while displaying an incomplete understanding of the complexities of grammar and usage.
- It maligns the poetic, versatile, and lovely em dash—a glorious and noble punctuation mark. Too many? Pish.
I admit that too many (that is, more than two) in one sentence can confuse a reader—because it can be hard to discern which em dashes are related. But beyond that commonsensical rule, I say (and I’ll acknowledge that some people whom I admire disagree with me) that there should be no limit on the number of em dashes a writer uses, as long as he or she uses them properly.
They come in so handy—for interpolation, asides, showing a close relationship between two clauses, abrupt changes of thought, and more.
OK, OK, OK—I'll allow that they are frowned on in formal writing (for reasons that make little sense) and should perhaps be avoided for that reason. But I think many people should use more of them. I often see writers using an ellipsis (dot, dot, dot) where an em dash would be more appropriate—in many cases, the writer is trying to indicate an abrupt change of thought, but the ellipsis gives the preceding phrase a "trailing off into silence" sort of feeling. ...
If you're trying to convey the conversation of two teenagers (as I was in my story), you're going to need a lot of em dashes.