cautionary tale: em dashes

Via this post on Splitsider, I read this interesting account of the State’s doomed move to network television. Written by David Lipsky, it’s a well-researched piece of immersive journalism, one made rather poignant with the benefit of 16 years of distance. (The State and its members have had a ton of success, and yet there’s always been a feeling with them of unrealized potential.) As a bonus, there’s a moment of the kind of matter-of-fact business racism that few people evince publicly but many people believe.

Unfortunately, the piece’s effect is considerably dulled for me by the endless em-dashes Lipsky employs. There are literally dozens. (Hyphens: between compounds, such as compound adjectives like “still-nascent technology.” En dashes: to show a range, such as “from 40–50 degrees.” Em dashes: to interrupt or separate a though, such as “I thought– and frankly, I still do– that he was making a mistake.” Note that I’m too lazy to get the typographical difference between en and em dashes right.)

It’s a grating practice, one that ruins the kind of rhythm and momentum necessary for a long-form piece. To be fair, the link I’ve provided is to an at-times imprecise transcription of the original print article, but I doubt that’s a serious factor in the overuse of the construction. Em dashes bring writing to a halt– that’s their purpose– and so they have to be applied sparingly. They’re more cilantro than salt. Used too often, they make reading a piece of writing like watching an online video that never. stops. buffering. I’m surprised all the em dashes survived the editing process, but then I wonder if that’s really what’s going on here; perhaps Lipsky’s editors were averse to constructions that could have supplanted some of the dashes, like parentheticals or the unfairly-maligned semicolon.

Perhaps this is an example of hating in others that which we see in ourselves. I’ve been accused, fairly, of overloading my own prose with boutique constructions. But all writers are hypocrites, after all.

Update: Oh, and: “Pete Dinklage, the dwarf.” Thanks for that, 1996.


  1. No way dude, I love em dashes. I use them all the time. In my opinion, they rather speed things up. Read Byron’s Don Juan with the dashes as he wrote it, and then with them “corrected” to a more modern style with commas etc. instead, and you’ll see that the former goes much faster and more breathlessly. Which suits the poem.

  2. But you’ll concede that Don Juan isn’t a piece of magazine journalism about a sketch comedy troupe, and that most of us aren’t Byron.

  3. Sure, but I don’t think that has anything to do with it. I’m saying they don’t necessarily bring writing to a halt, and I brought a piece of evidence to that effect. Looking at that article, I think the problem is rather that they failed to use actual typographic em dashes, but rather hyphens, which is confusing.

    Luckily I am not a writer and can merrily continue my heedless em-dashing ways without worrying about editors cutting them out. It probably is like cilantro: some people like it, some people don’t.

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