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  1. tonten

    tonten Active Member

    Sep 15, 2009
    Likes Received:
    Vancouver, Canada

    EM Dash Before + After Punctuation

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by tonten, Feb 21, 2010.

    In some books, I've seen the EM dash placed before an exclamation mark/question mark. In other books, I've seen it placed after it.

    Is there a correct way of doing this or is it a stylistic choice or are there different situations when one is used oppose to the other?

    Examples from Harry Potter the 7th book:

    "Don't you dare --!" squealed Aunt Petunia, but again, Vernon waved her down: slights on his personal appearance were, it seemed, as nothing to the danger he had spotted.

    Another one:

    "Know how to --? Of course I ruddy well know how to driver!" spluttered Uncle Vernon.

    Example from Harry Potter 5th Book

    'I know, Williamson, I know, I saw him too!' gibbered Fudge, who was wearing pyjamas under his pinstriped cloak and was gasping as though he had just run miles. 'Merlin's beard -- here -- here! -- in the Ministry of Magic! -- great heavens above -- it doesn't seem possible -- my word -- how can this be --?'
  2. cboatsman

    cboatsman Senior Member

    Feb 4, 2010
    Likes Received:
    This is just my opinion as I really don't have a definite answer for you. I even tried researching it on Google.

    These sentences are ugly. I have absolutely no idea how the author got away with the third example you gave us from the 5th book. I just had to throw this out there.

    As to the actual question I don't feel it matters. In your first example I see absolutely no reason for the exclamation mark to be there. In the second example I see no reason why the sentence was even wrote like that. There's no question there. It's Uncle Vernon repeating what the driver said out of disbelief, he is not actually asking a question.

    In the case of an actual question being asked I feel the mark would go before the em-dash. However, in this case also why is there an em-dash anyways? If the exclamation or question is full and complete then why is there an "abrupt break in speech."

    Until some more people post on this I'd take my post with a grain of salt. I am sorry I cannot provide a more definite answer.

  3. Evil Flamingo

    Evil Flamingo Contributing Member Contributor

    Nov 7, 2009
    Likes Received:
    San Diego, CA
    The whole point of the EM dash is to stunt the flow in poetry to give emphasis to certain words and phrases. Using them in these sentences is not a great idea (especially when ellipses will suffice). And placing them behind or after a question mark is just useless. I can't tell what Rowling is trying to say by doing that. It seems to me as just another thing to be cut out. EM dashes are wonderful if used correctly in poetry, but not in stories (especially being useless around question marks).

    E. F. Mingo
  4. ManhattanMss

    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

    May 14, 2009
    Likes Received:

    A typical usage--one of several--of the em dash is to show interruption--an interruption by something else that intrudes into the middle of a sentence or a thought (like "one of several" in this sentence). My other usage (after "interruption") is an example of emhasizing something by tacking on an explanation that ends the sentence.

    Except in some archaic literature, I haven't seen the em dash used in the way it's used in your first example ("Don't you dare --!" squealed Aunt Petunia, but again, Vernon waved her down: slights on his personal appearance were, it seemed, as nothing to the danger he had spotted.) because I don't detect an interruption, which (if there was one) would not interrupt speech before the written punctuation if any was required, in any case. Both the exclamation mark and the em dash seem extraneous and carelessly used to me. But that's not to say that finnicky best-selling authors don't get cut a lot of slack in the publishing biz for their own stylistic preferences, no matter how cluttering those choices are.

    In the second example that you give ("Know how to --? Of course I ruddy well know how to driver!" spluttered Uncle Vernon.) I assume this is two separate speakers here and that they're separated into different paragraphs in print. Like this:

    "Know how to--?"
    "Of course I ruddy well know how to drive(r?)!" spluttered Uncle Vernon.

    Here, there is an interruption to what the first speaker was about to say, and I assume the question mark was added in order to distinguish "know how to ..." as a question from "know how to ..." as the beginning of some kind of statement. Again, I think it's a poor choice of words, which might have shown the question about to be asked more clearly. e.g.,

    "Don't you know how to--"
    "Of course I ruddy well know how to drive!" spluttered Uncle Vernon.

    ... where the question mark would serve no purpose in clarifying the question about to be asked.

    But again, this is popular fiction fare and, I think, should not be taken as an example of proper use of punctuation.

    The last example is just chock full of idiotically excessive punctuation:

    'Merlin's beard -- here -- here! -- in the Ministry of Magic! -- great heavens above -- it doesn't seem possible -- my word -- how can this be --?

    It looks like it might be substituting for pauses of some kind, where we would normally use ellipses (...). And the final em dash before the question mark does nothing but to emphasize the distraction, in my opinion.

    There might be some variation between BrEng and AmEng on this point that I'm not aware of. But I suspect it's merely a nod to the success and popularity of the author penning these fine examples of excessiveness.
  5. madhoca

    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

    Dec 1, 2008
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    the shadow of the velvet fortress
    Don't you dare --!
    Know how to --?

    Since both of these are interrupted sentences—one an exclamation, the other a question—the punctuation is correct, in British English, anyway. The exclamation and question marks indicate the intonation of the speaker; it wouldn't be so clear if they were missing at the end.

    However, the limp writing afterward doesn't really bear out the impression that the speaker is being interrupted, I must say!

    The other examples look like overkill, IMO.
  6. mammamaia

    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

    Nov 21, 2006
    Likes Received:
    Coquille, Oregon
    just more proof that while rowling is a popular, filthy rich writer, she's not a particularly good one...

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