I’ve been told that I use too many dashes. My high school AP Language and Composition teacher would often draw an X through each dash I used in my essays, suggesting that they detracted from the message I was trying to convey. In peer review — in both high school and college — my peers have frequently written in workshop letters, “Why do you use so many dashes where you could just use commas?” I’ve never listened to them, though — without a dash, my sentences wouldn’t convey the same meaning. They wouldn’t elicit the same pause in the reader’s head, and they wouldn’t set the sections of the sentence apart from each other in the same way. Plus, commas are overused. I have an aversion to the unnecessary comma — even if the sentence is grammatically correct, a comma should never be used when it doesn’t need to be. When in doubt, I go with the dash.
I have a confession, though. Until I started working at the Daily, I didn’t know what an em dash was. Sure, I had seen them, but I thought it was just a different font — or something — that some authors knew about and I didn’t. The dash I used in my high school and early college essays was the en dash – the one that’s between the hyphen and the em dash (and the one I used in this sentence). It’s easier to make — you just type a word, a space, a dash, another space, and then continue on with your sentence. It’s much more intuitive than the “option-shift-dash” that makes the em dash. After just a couple shifts at The Michigan Daily, though, I found that I’d been converted. The em dash came naturally to me, and it just looked better. It had the effect I’d desired but never quite got out of the en dash: It was longer, and it gave the emphasis that I wanted to force my readers to notice. What I’m trying to say here is that I’m in love with the em dash. This seems like the right time to switch forms — specifically, to the form of a love letter.
Dear em dash,
I love you. You are my favorite type of punctuation. I’m not just saying you’re the best type of dash — that’s obvious. I’m saying you’re better than every single punctuation mark — commas, semi-colons, periods — all of them. Periods are necessary, sure, but they lack personality. Commas are too plentiful. Everyone uses them; they’re boring now — they have no allure. And semi-colons are replaceable — I can’t think of a time when a semi-colon couldn’t be replaced by an em dash or period to strengthen the sentence. That leaves you, em dash. My one true love. I don’t care if my professors don’t like you or my classmates tell me to leave you for someone else. I’m going to keep using you. Don’t take that the wrong way — I need you, em dash. I know we’ve only known each other for two years, but I’m committed to you, I promise. You’ll be a part of my life as long as the alt-shift-dash MacBook shortcut exists.
Love always, Alexis