Em Dashes Can Keep Company

I’ve looked at the basics of the em dash, commonly referred to as the dash, in “Punctuation Pitfalls–The Em Dash and Its Cousin the En Dash” and “The Ellipsis or the Em-Dash.” But I realized there’s another aspect of this handy-dandy punctuation mark that I have yet to address: how does it work with accompanying marks? Or does it?

As in so much of English grammar, the answer to the last question is, it depends. There are times the em dash should not and will never be joined with another punctuation mark, but then there are the times, it must include a companion. So which is which?

The never instances are places where the em dash replaces a comma: in complex sentences. As a refresher, a complex sentence has two clauses, or groups of words containing a subject and verb: one independent, able to stand on its own as a sentence, and one dependent, not expressing a complete thought. To review where the comma belongs in a complex sentence, see “Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 5.”

In these complex sentences, a writer may chooses to substitute an em dash for the comma, in which case, the em dash is flying solo.

Then there are instances when it takes on passengers. Here are three:

  1. If the parenthetical information set off by em dashes is either a question or an exclamation, a question mark or an exclamation point may precede the em dash.
    Most of the politicianswho says they care?–seem to ignore the wishes of voters.
  2. If an em dash is used to indicate a sudden break in dialogue, it precedes the closing quotation mark. If the sentence continues, requiring a comma, the em dash precedes the comma.
    “Get out of my way! Get out of my–“
    “I’ve had enough of your–,” she began, but her daughter burst into tears.
  3. If the sudden break belongs to the action rather than to the dialogue, em dashes are used after and before the quotation marks to separate the dialogue from the rest of the sentence.
    “Someday you’ll be sorry,” — he poked his finger into my chest — “and don’t you forget it.”

There you have it–our em dash friend isn’t always a loner. Depending on the circumstance, he can consort with punctuation partners.



Filed under Commas, Dashes, Sentence structure

4 responses to “Em Dashes Can Keep Company

  1. Wow, I don’t remember ever seeing a dash followed by a comma (as in bullet point 2, example 2) in published literature. Is that more of a style preference?

  2. I’ve seen a lot of “creative punctuating” when it comes to the em dash, Katie. I had to look this one up in the Chicago Manual of Style. Which makes me think, perhaps, AP or MLA follows a different standard. CMoS is the primary guide for fiction, however, so the use of the comma in dialogue ought to be the standard, I would think.

    As to creative punctuating, I was forced to add spaces in #3 because WordPress turned the straight quotes into curly ones and they were bent the wrong way! 😆 But I’ve seen spaces before and after em dashes in books. CMoS doesn’t address this per se, but in their examples, there is no space.

    Anyway, thanks for your feedback, Katie.


  3. Gene Ostenkamp

    What about using an em dash instead of a comma after injunction? For more dramatic/comical purposes.
    2 Examples:

    Everyone was delighted. Well–except for Mable.

    Mable wore a pretty dress. Well–it wasn’t exactly a dress. It was…

  4. Gene, good question. There’s a lot of flexibility here. Chicago Manual of Style says the em dash indicates “a sudden break in thought or sentence structure or an interruption in dialogue” but that an ellipsis may also do the same thing. However, in the ellipsis explanation to which the book refers, it says “ellipsis points may be used to suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion or insecurity.”

    So I take these two to mean that author intent dictates which you use in the examples you gave. If the Well is followed by some thought or confusion, then I’d go with the ellipsis. If it is sudden, then the em dash. If it is neither, then the comma. The question to ask is, how do you want readers to understand the sentence?

    Hope that helps.


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