or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Em Barrassing

Here is a recent Slate article about the em dash, which I use all the time, or at least a dummied-up version of composed of two hyphens. I don't, however, use it as much as the piece's author, who has so liberally and, I assume, jokingly studded her article with them that I found it unreadable.

If you are going to use the em dash in the middle of a sentence, to insert a thought into the flow of words, then you have to use a pair of them, just exactly as you would use parentheses: most of the time, when I use a pair of em dashes in this manner, it's because I've already in my opinion used up my allotment of parentheses. And yet here are a couple of sentences from another Slate piece about counterfeiting and its possible positive effect on sales of the real thing:

With policing severely curtailed, counterfeiting took off in 1995—Qian estimates a nearly 100-fold increase in the production of fakes within just two years.

That's how you use a single em dash, if you want to tack two clauses together without using a semicolon or a colon. Perfectly valid, although Strunk and White disapprove. But look at this:

The copies of low-end items—produced with cheap fabric on cheap, locally made machinery, were scarcely different from the real deal, which were also produced with cheap fabric on cheap machinery.

Wrong wrong wrong! The parenthetical "produced with cheap fabric on cheap, locally made machinery" is inserted into the middle of the sentence, and has to be bracketed with em dashes. The comma at the end is insufficient.

You'd think someone would have noticed that before it went to print, but this is Slate we're talking about. They don't notice much of anything.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You want space-endash-space, not nospace-emdash-nospace (which does not work) or the bastardized double-hyphen, which, incidentally, can be relied upon to linebreak (v.) between the two.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 8:35:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

I do, don't I? And they do have an ugly tendency to split at a line break, don't they? I don't know why I've been using an unspaced double dash for so long: sheer laziness, I guess. And also the worry that it wouldn't show up properly on other people's computers: sometimes curly quotes in other people's writing show up on my screen as a hideous little mangle of characters.

A proper em dash on a Mac is just option-shift-dash, so I guess I will start using that from now on.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 8:57:00 AM  

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