Tag Archives: complex sentences

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.
    Example:
    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.
    Examples:
    “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.
    Example:
    “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.

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 5

Commas Used in Complex Sentences.

In Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 2 I discussed commas used in compound sentences. Since a compound sentence contains two or more independent clauses, I took the time to define and provide examples of independent clauses.

I bring this up because today I want to tackle the use of commas in complex sentences, or ones with an independent clause and at least one dependent clause.

By way of refresher, a clause is a group of words with a subject (who dun it) and a verb (what action did they do). What separates an independent clause from a dependent clause is whether or not that particular group of words can stand alone as a sentence; that is, is the thought complete?

Here are some dependent clauses:

    after the game started
    before her mother served dinner
    if the speaker was right
    when the judge finally made his ruling
    because the story held my interest to the end

In each case, the group of words contains a subject and verb, but because of the conjunction that introduces the clause, the thought is incomplete. (Bonus coverage: these conjunctions are called subordinate conjunctions because they subordinate a dependent clause to the independent clause).

I love these complex sentences because the comma use is so straightforward. If the dependent clause comes first, use a comma between the two clauses. However, when the independent clause comes first, you don’t need a comma between the two.

Notice the first sentence in the above paragraph. The dependent clause because the comma use is so straightforward came after the independent clause, so no comma was necessary. However, in the next two sentences, the dependent clauses came first, so each needed a comma at the end of the dependent clause.

Here are some additional examples of dependent clauses beginning sentences, and therefore requiring commas.

    Because his brother finished first, he won the prize.
    Since the rain stopped, we put away our umbrellas.
    If the pitcher strikes out the next batter, she will set a personal record for the season.

Here are examples of dependent clauses following independent clauses and therefore not requiring commas.

    The defendant thanked his attorney after the hearing ended.
    The road won’t open until Monday because the workers haven’t finished clearing away the debris.
    The media attention increased when the two best skiers each moved into the semifinals.

As I said, this comma use is straightforward (read, easy). No exceptions and no judgment calls. That’s my kind of punctuation rule. 😀

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