Lullaby is an Amazon #1 Bestseller! YAY!
Click here to find it on Amazon!
Silent Night is NOW AVAILABLE!
Click here to buy it on Amazon!
I'm a little excited. Can you tell?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dear John,   Dear John:   Dear John;   Dear John?

Recently I was having a conversation with a friend of mine (who happens to be a published author) about grammar and how, even as a writer, it can be a bit daunting.  Most writers are not editors as well.  We WRITE.  We don’t really think about where the semi colon should go or when it’s appropriate to use an emdash instead of an ellipsis.  In truth, starting out, most of us don’t even know what an emdash is!!!

Friends Don’t Let Friends Perfuncturate Punctuation

(I know you’ll look it up if I don’t tell you.... Per*func"tu*rate\, v. t. To perform in a perfunctory manner; to do negligently.)’s the catch, I do edit for this friend of mine.  Each week he writes a newsletter to send out to his readers, I edit it before I let him send it (because friends don't let friends abuse grammar).  Since I began editing for him, the newsletter has gone out once before I was able to work my magic. It wasn’t pretty.   (It was also redistributed after I got my hands on it.)  I say all of this to get to this point...

I have decided to create an addition to my blog I’m going to call GRAMMAR 101.  The first subcategory will be PUNCTUATION 101.  I think we will start with the :::drumroll:::

Emdash ( – )

The emdash is a versatile little bugger.  All the functions of the comma, semicolon, AND colon! 

It can be used to create pauses, join two independent or dependent clauses, or introduce a list.  

It's a less formal version of the aforementioned marks which are typically preferable in more formal writing – luckily for us, we aren’t that formal around here and the emdash is right at home.

In narrative writing, I think of it as more vivid and more invisible than those marks all at the same time.

While it is long enough to create a pause, there generally aren’t any spaces around it, and therefore your text will have a more continual flow.  

Because of this it can easily be used for scenes where you want a flow unbroken by real stops, especially in stream-of-consciousness writing or action scenes:

(I’ll use characters from my book for examples because – well – I can.)

Aedan reached out for the door—Halle dangling lifelessly from his arms—he stretched with all he had towards the handle—but it was too far.

Compare that to:

Aedan reached out for the door, Halle dangling lifelessly from his arms; he stretched with all he had towards the handle, but it was too far.

Ok, so the second example is most likely more correct from a formal standpoint, but the emdashes cause the reader to slow down which makes it more dramatic.  On the flip side, the first example is probably too dramatic, so I would recommend balancing the scales between the two:

Aedan reached out for the door, Halle dangling lifelessly from his arms.  He stretched with all he had towards the handle—but it was too far.

In this last example the emdash creates a brief pause just at the peak of suspense:  Will Aedan get the door open in time? And then the dash's length drags that moment out until the question is answered for us.  

A semicolon would’ve been wrong there (aka incorrect grammatically), and a comma or colon just wouldn't have had the same feeling of suspense.  Personally I love dashes if for no other reason than the dramatic effect they can create and their flexibility.  It’s not quite an addiction (that would be the ellipsis – which we will get to) but I probably overuse them in spells.  So if you share my tendency to them keep in mind, like all highly dramatic marks, they should be used sparingly or they lose their punch.

If a period is a stop sign, a semicolon a rolling stop sign then the emdash is the yellow light you pause at, then speed through.  

But wait....there’s more... (I’ve always wanted to use that line)

The emdash can also be used to highlight interruptions.  It doesn’t matter if this occurs within a sentence or at the end of it, still works.

The unconscious Hellion—the only somewhat tolerable kind, as far as Halle was concerned—lay motionlessly on the concrete floor.

Matt, I swear, I have no idea what you’re—HEY! What do you think you’re doing?

For those parentheses addicts out there...yes, parentheses could be used in these examples just as easily, BUT keep in mind that parentheses create a little commentary world off to themselves, closed off from the rest of the world – I mean sentence, in my opinion the emdash doesn’t cause as long of a pause.

**Practical Tip for Authors**

Character Q is talking and Character Z interrupts her, it is highly useful to end Character Q’s speech with an emdash to indicate Q’s getting cut off mid sentence.

She attempted to mask the sound of her voice failing and her words came out in almost a whisper.  “What is it that I need protection from, Dad?  Because I can’t imagine anything more than – ”

“Me, Halle.”  Noah interrupted. 

Why is an emdash called an emdash you ask???  Excellent question!

My studies tell me there are actually three kinds of dash marks when it comes to typesetting:

  1. hyphens, like so: - , hyphens join two words into one closed compound
  2. endashes, which came about during the time of hand-typesetting using two hyphens (the length of an “n”, hence the name), and are used to join open compounds (like “the North Carolina–Virginia border”; “North Carolina” is an open compound because it is one word with a space in it) or to replace the word “to” (as in “1999–2010,” or “our Australia–Ireland trip”)
  3. and emdashes, well, they are composed of three hyphens (the length of an “m”), and we’ve already covered all the fun they can have.

Word on the street is that writers are typically not expected to know about endashes – which is probably good for most of us!  My research also tells me that if you have a pretty decent understanding of how to use hyphens and emdashes correctly, most editors aren’t going to thrash you with the red pen on the endashes, they will leave those to the copyeditors.

Join the clan! It’s fast, easy, and oh yeah....FREE!! 

To keep up with the latest on PUNCTUATION 101 sign up as a follower in whatever way works for you.  There will be more coming soon.


  1. that was an excellent discussion of a good friend of mine, by an even better friend of mine--Bree.

  2. Oh, Bridgette,

    I'm suddenly your biggest fan... this is such a timely post for me. I'm editing and have discovered that I've used way too many emdashes (or are they endashes????) so now I have a reference!!!

    Thanks and looking forward to getting to know you,

    1. Becky,
      I'm so glad you find this helpful. That's my purpose with Grammar 101 ... to help fellow writers. Looking forward to getting to know you too!

    Eat Shoots and Leaves ( and no I am not referring to " Your Man")
    The Old School Definitive Guide to Grammar for writers- lawyers- and well just any one to whom, a well placed comma. means Everything!

    1. Julia,
      You are so right. It isn't only writers who rely on correct punctuation. Commas and semi-colons are on the list to be reviewed. Stay tuned. :)

  4. Great information, Bridgette. Just discovered last month that I was using the ... in places where I could correctly use and emdash. Now I've gone back through the first 35 chapters of my WIP and corrected the situation. Keep up the good work!

  5. As a writer, I love em-dashes...Like you said, I probably overuse them, but they're such handy little guys. I use en-dashes for when my characters stutter, but the em-dashes, yeah, they so contribute to the drama...Tabs

  6. Lazy grammar. :( I don't remember "em dashes" from the works of Shakespeare or Charles Dickens. Only saying.

    1. I respectfully beg to differ. I am an avid fan of Shakespeare and he DID in fact use the emdash. It may not have been called by the name we know it now, but it was used.
      Example: Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1 (the famous "To be, or not to be" soliloquy)

      To be, or not to be? That is the question —
      Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
      The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
      Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
      And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep —
      No more — and by a sleep to say we end
      The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
      That flesh is heir to — ’tis a consummation
      Devoutly to be wished! To die, to sleep.
      To sleep, perchance to dream — ay, there’s the rub,
      For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
      When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
      Must give us pause. There’s the respect
      That makes calamity of so long life.