…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Friday, July 21, 2006

not about boobs

I was asked recently what my favorite element of punctuation is. Really, copy editors are asked these kinds of things, and good golly are they glad anyone cares! OK, in truth, it was my partner who asked, but when I replied she asked me to flesh out my answer for possible use in a language course aimed at adorable little freshmen. Pretty cool, huh? Since writing about my favorite punctuation derailed me from writing the blog entry I was planning—which, by the way, might've been about boobs!—I've decided to instead post my punctuation piece. Punctuation, boobs: It's all good, right?

This is an em dash: —. Isn’t she beautiful? While her uses are many—introducing attributions, signifying interruptions in quoted speech, setting off lists (as used here)—her most heroic function lies in eliminating confusion in long or complex sentences, particularly when a writer wants to signal to readers a shift in thought, tone, or pace. Take the following:

1(a). When asked to name her favorite element of punctuation, the copy editor thoughtfully considered parentheses, the semicolon, the colon, at once deftly delineating and joining sentences, complete and otherwise, and the em dash, fairy godmother to the overworked Cinderella of punctuation, the comma.

Decipherable, perhaps, but such sentences cause readers to stumble or even reread them in trying to understand their meaning. A confused reader is an unhappy one—of this you can be sure—so the primary aim of good writing is always clarity, whether ideas are expressed in simple or complex sentences. In the sentence cited, a simple set of em dashes accomplishes that aim:

1(b). When asked to name her favorite element of punctuation, the copy editor thoughtfully considered parentheses, the semicolon, the colon—at once deftly delineating and joining sentences, complete and otherwise—and the em dash, fairy godmother to the overworked Cinderella of punctuation: the comma.

Replacing a set of commas with a set of em dashes not only breaks the monotony of example 1(a) but signals a shift in emphasis between the main idea of the sentence—a list of favorite punctuation elements—and the secondary information contained therein—an aside about the particular appeal of the colon (perhaps honoring its runner-up status?).

In the sentence just above I used em dashes to emphasize detail—signaling that the phrases contained within are meant to illustrate the points made in the body of the sentence—and parentheses to deemphasize a tangential thought (an aside that may otherwise serve only to confuse the reader). Setting such details off instead with commas creates minor chaos:

2. Replacing a set of commas with a set of em dashes not only breaks the monotony of example 1(a) but signals a shift in emphasis between the main idea of the sentence, a list of favorite punctuation elements, and the secondary information contained therein, an aside about the particular appeal of the colon, perhaps honoring its runner-up status.

Looking back at example 1(b) for a moment, bonus points for anyone who noticed one other minor change: the replacement of the final comma with a colon, lending more emphasis to the phrase “the comma” than it might have enjoyed were it set off by, well, a comma.

The comma’s greatest strength is its versatility, which also, sadly, can be its most frustrating weakness. Just because the comma can be used doesn’t mean it should be used, not when written language is so rich with options: Adopt a couple of neglected but eager parentheses. Employ an out-of-work colon. Dust off a pair of em dashes. Go crazy! But not too crazy—keep this rule in mind:

In general, em dashes emphasize content while parentheses deemphasize content, with commas steadfastly maintaining the middle ground. Thus, choose your punctuation with care.

It would be silly, for instance, to write:

3(a). It would be silly—for instance—to write this.

Though it would be sillier still to write:

3(b). It would be silly (for instance) to write this.

Save em dashes for clauses you wish to highlight—at which time they’ll spring forth as eagerly as a puppy, ready to lend energy and character to your writing—and let parentheses serve in their own parenthetical way (though they’ve been known to grouse, with a sigh, “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride”).

And don’t assume that em dashes must occur in pairs (though, for your readers’ sake, please don’t open a parenthetical statement without ensuring that it is properly closed). Employing a single em dash in a sentence commands your readers’ attention, enticing them forward—c’mon, readers, let’s go see what’s over here! It can also lend particular force to a short, terminal phrase—really, it will!

Steve Martin wrote an essay for The New Yorker in 1997 in which he announced a worldwide shortage of periods and, indeed, used only one period in the entire essay, resulting in a knuckle-cracking demonstration of skill with alternative punctuation.

Were a comma shortage afoot, how would you do your part to conserve? If you say, “Use more em dashes, of course!” thanks for listening, but I’m not so biased toward her seductively long sweep that I would forsake other useful elements of punctuation.

My best advice for fellow writers is this: “Listen” to what you read and write, and train yourself to “hear” the flow of the language. Clear, concise writing flows swiftly, while confusing, unnecessarily complex verbiage stammers and leads readers aground. We rarely notice when language is wielded with precision—it’s the jarring jangle of the wrong that gets our attention: That’s good! Notice the wrong in everything you read, and then ask yourself, Why did that sentence make me stop reading midway, sending me back to the beginning as though it’s MY fault it was constructed poorly? If it was in fact your fault, fix it! If not, fix it anyway! Sharpen your punctuation skills to a steely point and unleash your sense of all that is elegant and fine on a disorganized world. If you’re not part of the punctuation solution, you’re part of the problem.


Blogger treecup said...

Wow — that was brilliant. I might even assign it to my freshmen, if they weren't already so prone to overuse of the em dash!

10:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well bite me on tha big toe 'n make me fart the Star Spangled Banner, Ah thawt M Dash wuz—ya know—like a steak seasoning r sumthin'.

~Cornelius 'Butterbean Mullet' Huckabee

11:32 PM  
Blogger sporksforall said...

Serious note: you are amazing. Writing...awesome. Punctuation...funny. The sweet little juniors will love it.

Non serious note: where's the en-dash tribute?

7:27 AM  
Blogger WenWhit said...

God, I'm so turned on.

8:07 AM  
Blogger WordsRock said...

This post could use more boobs.
It is brilliant however. :)

5:01 PM  
Blogger Slangred said...

Ah, the love that dares not speak its name: I have known for years that you harbored deep sentiment for the em dash. I don't know if you meant to keep it secret all this time, but if asked, I would have spilled the beans--it was that obvious to me.

12:56 PM  
Blogger weese said...

ooo the pressure.
You're advice about 'listening' is spot on. While my writing style is ... relaxed at best - I find cadence the most important element. I often re-read outloud. I need to 'hear' my words. My goal is - conversational.
I imagine I pull that off sometimes... and then the others - well I can only hope that you just assume I am drunk.

5:42 AM  
Blogger bryduck said...

I use 'em all the time. (Geddit? Haw.) I must admit my premiere fondness for the semicolon though, because it breaks up two separate yet related thoughts in just the right way for me most of the time.

11:32 AM  

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