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:
- 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.
Example: Most of the politicians—who says they care?–seem to ignore the wishes of voters.
- 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.
Examples: “Get out of my way! Get out of my–“
- 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.
Example: “Someday you’ll be sorry,” — he poked his finger into my chest — “and don’t you forget it.”
“I’ve had enough of your–,” she began, but her daughter burst into tears.
There you have it–our em dash friend isn’t always a loner. Depending on the circumstance, he can consort with punctuation partners.