1. tonten
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    tonten Senior Member

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    Am I Em Dash Happy?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by tonten, Apr 10, 2011.

    Am I using Em Dashes Correctly?

    I just got some edits back from a friend on my book. In the notes he's written for me, he thinks that I am a bit EM dash trigger happy, or not using them correctly. I'm not sure what to think anymore after reading his comments. It has put my whole usage of EM dashes into doubt. I just want to go over four sentences, if I may with you guys to see what your opinions are.



    Example 1:

    "Let's go to the gardens -- or we could walk around town a bit," Tina said.

    I used the dash in this case, cause I wanted to signify a slight pause when the characters says it. The way I used the EM dash -- is that acceptable? Or would a comma be better or no punctuation at all between the two clauses.



    Example 2:

    "That's it -- I've had it with you racks!'"

    My friend says EM dash is not necessary here. It is better replaced by an exclamation mark.

    "That's it! I've had it with you racks!'"

    I agree as I think the exclamation mark would be more effective, but is it still wrong to write it with the EM dash?



    Example 3:

    The clothes, mostly white, were all twisted, torn, and wet -- and buried in dirt.

    My friend suggested to change it to

    The clothes, mostly white, were all twisted, torn, and wet. They were also buried in dirt.

    Did I use the EM dash wrong?



    Example 4:

    "Those are bold words--" he said, twisting his sword, and trying to make himself look fiendish. "--for a boy without a weapon."

    My friend says commas are better here. He thinks it should be written as:

    "Those are bold words," he said, twisting his sword, and trying to make himself look fiendish, "for a boy without a weapon."

    I don't know if I agree or not. If the character was just saying it without all that stuff in the middle, I would write it like this:

    "Those are bold words -- for a boy without a weapon."

    I would want the slight pause between the two clauses. Is a comma just as effective:

    "Those are bold words, for a boy without a weapon."

    Which one is better or is it just a stylish choice/preference?

    I do however, see my friend's point of view. I think with all that stuff in the middle, it actually already creates a pause, making the EM dash redundant.

    EM dash or commas?

    ________________________________________________________________

    Final Note:

    I see EM dashes used a lot in speech in the novels I read, so I don't think I am trigger happy. However, it may be my usage (Am I using it wrong, or perhaps sometimes I am just picking the EM dash when there is stronger punctuation I can use), or it could be my friend is not used to seeing so much EM dashes in speech in the novels he reads.

    I would greatly appreciate any thoughts and opinions.

    Thank-you.
     
  2. amementomori
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    amementomori New Member

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    As for me, I've been curious as how to properly write a sentence containing a similar dialogue structure as yours. Also, I believe your original was much more dramatic, since the filler between dialogue wasn't written dramatically enough, thus, your use of dashes in this example are superior to your friends use of commas. That my take on it. Still, I'm curious as to others' take. I've seen this particular dialogue structure done so many ways; yet, it seems so untraditional to see dialogue structured in this fashion.

    Also, I think I would remove the period after the word 'fiendish.'
     
  3. lostinwebspace
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    lostinwebspace Active Member

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    Em dashes are used for either parenthetical statements or for emphasis (read The Great Gatsby for an example of what I mean by emphasis). They help the reader zip along the words, so an em dash will "speed up" the reader's reading (while the ellipsis slows down).

    So, unless the em dash is being used for any of the above, it should really be changed to some other punctuation mark.

    Example 1: Let's go to the gardens -- or we could walk around town a bit," Tina said.

    To give the reader a slight pause, use an ellipsis instead. Or, if you're feeling okay with it, end the sentence and begin a new one.

    Example 2: "That's it -- I've had it with you racks!'"

    You could replace that with a period.

    Example 3: The clothes, mostly white, were all twisted, torn, and wet -- and buried in dirt.

    The context would tell me more, but this looks okay as long as being buried in dirt is supposed to carry some impact with it. Otherwise, just tack the dirt to the end of your list and add a comma: "... were all twisted, torn, wet, and buried in dirt."

    Example 4: "Those are bold words--" he said, twisting his sword, and trying to make himself look fiendish. "--for a boy without a weapon."

    First, I believe the em dashes should go outside the dialog: "Those are bold words"--he said, twisting his sword, and trying to make himself look fiendish--"for a boy without a weapon." But this is the only technically incorrect use (I think it's incorrect, anyway). I agree with amementomori: use commas instead. The reason to use em dashes here is if the sentence between the bits of dialog isn't a dialog tag: "Those are bold words"--he punched a wall--"for a boy without a weapon." I wouldn't use a comma here. That's a comma splice. Maybe an ellipsis?

    The only example above that's incorrect is #4. But you have to figure out if you want to use em dashes because, like everything else, the more you use them, the less impact they has.

    Also, there should be no spaces around the em dashes.
     
  4. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    What I heard about them is that the -- is for when someone is talking and being interrupted or interrupt himself in the middle of saying something, while the ... is for when the speech is sort of "dying out" or fading away, I can't come up with a better way of describing it right now, hope you understand what I mean. I think in the cases you listed neither one qualifies for a -- if that is correct. Rather a comma or an exclamation-mark at the most. But even the exclamation-marks should be used sparingly.
     
  5. tonten
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    tonten Senior Member

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    thank-you for your response amementomori and lostinwebspace

    For example 1, I read that the general consensus on the web that is that in speech, EM dashes should only be used when someone is interrupted (or train of thought is interrupted) and ellipsis for pause.

    But, in a lot of books I read, I see the EM dash used for pause instead of the ellipsis. And it is used a lot this way. Here are some examples from Harry Potter the 4th book:

    “And allow me to introduce you to Mr. Oblansk—Obalonsk—Mr.—well, he's the Bulgarian Minister of Magic, and he can't understand a word I'm saying anyway, so never mind. And let's see who else—you know Arthur Weasley, I daresay?”

    “How—how nice,” said Mr. Weasley, with a very strained smile.

    “And now, ladies and gentlemen, kindly welcome—the Bulgarian National Quidditch Team! I give you—Dimitrov!”




    For Example 2 and 3, I do agree with your assessment, lostinwebspace.



    For Example 4, I agree with amementomori's assement more. When I first wrote that sentence, I wanted that dramatic pause so that's why I used EM dashes there.

    I disagree with the "more you see them, the less impact they have" assessment. I read tons of books which use three times as more EM dashes than I do.

    Also with the no space/space rule -- either is correct. It is a matter of style. As quoted from Wikipedia:

    According to most American sources (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style) and to some British sources (e.g., The Oxford Guide to Style), an em dash should always be set closed (not surrounded by spaces). But the practice in some parts of the English-speaking world, including the style recommended by The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (because of the narrow width of newspaper columns), sets it open (separates it from its surrounding words by using spaces or hair spaces (U+200A)) when it is being used parenthetically. Some writers, finding the em dash unappealingly long, prefer to use an open-set en dash. This "space, en dash, space" sequence is also the predominant style in German and French typography.
     
  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    em dashes should not be used within dialog... ellipses are used for pauses between spoken words...

    the em dash is used when speech is interrupted... as in a sentence being cut off by another character's line...

    if the speaker simply doesn't finish a sentence, then an ellipsis shows it 'trailing off'...

    as for overuse of em dashes for legit purposes, i think i'd find more than 2-3 uses per page to be too much...

    leaving a space fore and aft is in dispute, with some saying no space and some saying should have... it may have something to do with us vs uk rules/usage... but it's not a deal-breaker with agents/publishers either way, as long as you're consistent...
     
  7. lostinwebspace
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    lostinwebspace Active Member

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    What's the reasoning behind not using them in dialog?
     
  8. tonten
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    tonten Senior Member

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    I am wondering the same thing.
     
  9. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    There's nothing wrong with using em-dashes in your dialog, as long as they're used correctly. It's not poetry, you can't just throw in some random punctuation to create a 'hard pause' or something. In most cases, commas and periods are more than enough to create the proper timing and flow of dialog. Remember, it's about flow, not necessarily correctness, but at the same time you don't want the reader stopping to try to figure out what punctuation is supposed to mean, as that's distracting and removes them from the story.

    So, use em dashes when dialog is interrupted:

    "That's why the three--" Bob held a finger up to the crowd, then let out a huge burp "--bears went weee-wee-wee all the way home."

    I don't even like using em dashes in dialog as the 'aside' sort of use--you know, where you add in clarification or whatev--because it can seem like the speaker is then suddenly aware of the reader and doing a hand-to-the-mouth secret whisper or hamming for the camera.

    I do like using them to create disfluencies (instead of using actual 'ums' or 'uhhh's you can get the same effect by using em dashes, as disfluencies are pretty much just mini interruptions anyway). Also, if a character is hemming and hawing, they can be of use for the same effect/reason. It's a fine line between using them in this way and using them to create hard pauses, though. If the dialog is momentarily paused, as in stuttered or halted, it should be an em dash, but if the speaker actually pauses to think or take a breath or burp, then that pause is best represented by action.

    So, to me, working:

    "You don't--I just can't--Oh nevermind!"

    (and that's creating falters, not creating an aside)

    Not very good:

    "I told him just what you said--and I told him good."

    Or worse, imo:

    "That's a pretty big word--for a nine year old."

    The catch-22 is that I don't think much more should be used in dialog than commas and periods, but if you're using an em dash when other punctuation would be more appropriate, that probably means the em dash shouldn't be there, and if the other punctuation is a colon or semi-colon, it should be converted into a comma or period for ease of dialog reading and flow, if that makes sense. So, if a bit of dialog grammatically should have a semi-colon instead of an em dash, I remove the em-dash and will usually put a comma, lol.

    Of course, it's fiction, so anyone can do anything they want. Hell, one time I even got away with this awkward construction (as in, a critically acclaimed author/professor said it was fine, if I really wanted to use it, though I eventually scratched it for something more clear):

    "I suppose you have a point, --"
    "James, ma'am, my name is James."

    Totally awkward construction--I mean a comma and then an em dash to end a line of dialog--but it was conveying what I wanted, though more convoluted than I desired, so I just changed it some by creating that awkward pause with action, instead of punctuation, which imo is usually the right thing to do.
     
  10. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    I'd do this:

    "Let's go to the gardens," Tina said, "or we could walk around town a bit."

    It gives you your slight pause, indicates who's speaking earlier (which is never a bad thing) and there's nothing abnormal about it that may trip up a reader and make them start thinking more about punctuation than the story.



    No way I'd personally go with double exclamation points, mostly because they aren't two separate ideas, and the "That's it!" removed reads funny, but with a comma it reads better, imo.

    Yes, you used it wrong[ly]. I'd say the real problem is that sentence as a whole just reads awkwardly. How are they mostly white if they'd been buried in dirt?

    Not sure how I'd re-write, as imo it's not a punctuation issue, but an issue with what the sentence means in the context of the situation.



    Commas much better. That sort of em dash use is pretty self-conscious in style, like the writer is actively trying to do something cute, when a comma is just as effective. If you need a longer pause, add a dialog tag, or even action, between the pieces of dialog.


    Hrm, I don't think I'd have kept one of your em dash usages (and find myself crossing out tons of them and '.......' uses in student manuscripts over the past few years. K.I.S.S. might apply, perhaps.
     

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