SQUIDS 101: Punctuation: Emdashes

Before I go on to the Squid 101 here, a word of thanks to the kind people who submitted entries in the flap-copy contest; it was very interesting and useful to see what you writers judged attractive for other writers (apparently having someone say what NOT to do is as useful as what TO do, as half of you mentioned the "what not to do" thing).

And I have FINISHED THE BOOK TEXT, pending an approvals question. I've discovered that the great danger of self-publishing, at least for me, is that there's been nobody and no deadline to take the manuscript out of my endlessly questioning, pushing, correcting hands. So it feels good to finally declare, "Enough, I'm done" and move on. I'm really pleased with a lot of the new material, and I hope you will be too.

Anyway: emdashes.

The emdash has all the functions of the comma, semicolon, AND colon: It can be used to create pauses, introduce a list, or join two independent or dependent clauses. It is regarded as less formal than all of those marks, however, and they are all preferable in more formal writing. In narrative writing, I think of it as simultaneously more dramatic and more invisible than those marks; it is long enough to create a real pause, but because there generally aren’t any spaces around it, it also creates a continuous flow of text. It can thus be used for scenes where you want a flow of clauses unbroken by real stops, especially in stream-of-consciousness writing or action scenes:
The squid reached out—the oxygen tank dangling from the tip of its tentacle—I stretched the whole length of my body towards it—but then the shark jerked on my foot and pulled me away.
Compare that to:
The squid reached out, the oxygen tank dangling from the tip of its tentacle; I stretched the whole length of my body towards it, but then the shark jerked on my foot and pulled me away.
This second example is probably more correct, but because it allows the reader to slow down, it’s rather less dramatic. On the other hand, the first example is probably too dramatic, so it would be wise to strive for a nice balance between the two:
The squid reached out, the oxygen tank dangling from the tip of its tentacle. I stretched the whole length of my body towards it—but then the shark jerked on my foot and pulled me away.
What's nice about this one is that the emdash creates a brief little pause at the moment of highest suspense, like being at the top of a hill on a roller coaster: Will our narrator get the oxygen tank in time? And then the dash's length drags that moment out until the shark answers the question for us. A semicolon would have been incorrect there, and a comma or colon wouldn't have had the same sense of suspension, I don't think. I love dashes for just this drama and flexibility, though if you share my addiction to them, we need to remember that like all highly dramatic marks, they should be used sparingly.

The emdash is also used to set off interruptions, either within a sentence or at the end of it. (Parentheses could be used in this next example just as easily, but because they create a little commentary world unto themselves, closed off from the rest of the sentence, they seem like a bigger pause than emdashes to me.)
The dead squid—the only trustworthy kind, as far as Joan was concerned—lay limply on the dock.

I assure you, Officer, I have never eaten—HEY! Did you get a look at that squid?
My authors know that if Character X is speaking and Character Y interrupts him, I will almost always request that they end Character X’s speech with an emdash to signify X’s getting cut off abruptly.
Looking deeply into Selina’s larger left eye, Phil took her front tentacle in his and murmured, “My most beautiful Miss Bonnellii, will you do me the honor of becoming—”
“I WON!” screeched Ethel from across the restaurant.
Note: In typesetting, there are actually three kinds of dash marks:
  • hyphens, like so: - , which join two words into one closed compound
  • endashes, which were created in hand-typesetting using two hyphens (the length of an “n”), and which are used to join open compounds (like “the North Dakota–Minnesota border”; “North Dakota” is an open compound because it’s one word with a space in it) or to replace the word “to” (as in “1996–2000,” or “our California–Florida trip”)
  • and emdashes, which equal three hyphens (the length of an “m”), and are discussed above.
Writers are generally not expected to know about endashes. If you use hyphens and emdashes correctly, that’s good enough for most editors, and we’ll trust the endashes will be taken care of in copyediting.