Once you start using the dash in your writing, it can be hard to stop. I’m talking about the em-dash here — that punctuation mark that is so helpful at linking phrases and clauses that don’t seem well served by a comma, semi-colon, or colon.
I started wondering the other day whether — and how badly — one can misuse the dash. Most style guides provide a good amount of leeway in terms of how the dash can function — it can function like a colon (as it did right there), parentheses (as it did in the first sentence of this paragraph), or a comma (as it did in the second sentence of this post). I sometimes see the dash used in place of a semi-colon — and while that use strikes me as a bit less ideal, I am reluctant to call it wrong.
This week I read a sentence in a memo that had two em-dashes in it, connecting three clauses sequentially, and that seems to me to stretch the dash beyond effective usage. The sentence worked along these lines:
The retreat will fall on the last Friday in June, which may not work for all faculty — but this will not be the only opportunity for faculty to discuss the curricular reforms — we’ll hold another full faculty meeting to discuss the curriculum early in September.
I felt the urge to replace the second dash with a period — or perhaps a semi-colon, but the period seemed like a better idea.
The dash has a certain flair to it in its informality and its versatility. It makes a parenthetical a bit more prominent — a bit less parenthetical — than parentheses. It adds more sentential importance to an additional thought or an afterthought than a comma can do.
This blog post, though, may highlight one way we as writers can start to make the dash less effective — by overusing it. As an editor I have started to create informal rules about the em-dash, such as no more than two sentences per paragraph with dashes — and more ideally only one per paragraph. And certainly you don’t get to use the em-dash in every sentence in a paragraph — even if arguably every sentence legitimately could take a dash.
It is disconcerting to be violating this rule so flagrantly in this post. And I would guess that at this point, you as a reader are tired of seeing the dash in this post — and perhaps distracted by its frequent appearance. Ideally punctuation should not be distracting. It should do its work organizing sentences on the page more subtly.
Is overuse misuse? I’m not ready to say that. But overuse can certainly deprive the dash of its punctuational punch.