October 17, 2019 Feature

A Once Rogue Punctuation Mark Gains Respectability: What You Can Now Accomplish with an Em Dash

A look at how the em dash has been used, and three useful things we can now do with it.

George D. Gopen

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An em dash — a double-length hyphen, taking up as much width as the letter M — was once considered as shameful a sin in formal discourse as slang or contractions. When I was attending the once-and-still-wondrous Roxbury Latin School (founded in 1645), some 60 years ago, had I used this hyper-hyphen punctuation mark (see the previous sentence for an example of a pair of them at work), I would have been sent straightaway to the headmaster’s office to be reprimanded for my act of moral turpitude. I might as well have slapped the English master in the face. All that has changed now; but it took a good long time to change. This On the Papers essay explains both how it happened and what excellent use you can make of this new best punctuational friend.

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