Dashed Bad Form

The elegant semi-colon is dying out; it is being replaced by the em-dash—the all-purpose tool of the lazy writer

Lionel Shriver

Bryony Gordon, in the Sunday Telegraph: “Other, more sane [sic] women would see this as a reason to get lost—I just view it as a challenge.” John Conroy, on the Daily Telegraph‘s letters page, whose editing is ordinarily impeccable: “Browsing for a book is not the same as going into a clothes shop—it is often a highly personal experience.”

Incorrect? No. But examples of a punctuation mark that is raging through contemporary prose as rapaciously as clostridium difficile is contaminating our hospitals: the em-dash. The em-dash is eating semicolons for breakfast. Not that we should disparage the em-dash—I use it myself, albeit, like many of my peers, often to excess—for this serene horizontal line exhibits a pleasing flexibility. It may substitute for the beleaguered semicolon, and link the constituent parts of one complete thought. A brace of em-dashes can insert interstitial comment without implying the sotto voce of parentheses (which always have about them the suggestion of gratuitous and undisciplined digression; they seem to signal that you won’t miss anything if you skip over what’s inside). A single em-dash can set a phrase or clause apart, just like a comma—but with a more emphatic pause.

Yet the abundance of em-dashes scoring—modern—writing—like—Morse—Code should surely be curtailed, if only to relieve the monotony. Since you can bung them in any old place, em-dashes are the resort of the lazy. The citations in my first paragraph might both more artfully deploy the sadly unfashionable semicolon.

Besides, the semicolon is supple as well. It may imply relatedness; it may imply contrast. With perfect clarity, it nimbly separates elements of a list that themselves contain elements of a list. For example, “These days, the semicolon exudes an aura of the fusty, the fastidious, and the defunct; of mildewed stacks, tight hair buns, and prissily sharpened pencils; of hesitancy, diffidence, and uncertainty, in contrast to the em-dash, which exudes a spirit of strength, flair, and decisiveness.”

Certainly the semicolon can be overdone; I taught a student once who had a semicolon fetish; she constructed whole paragraphs connecting every sentence with the dratted things; I sensed she thought full stops crude and semicolons sophisticated; but believe me, this punctuation tic was every bit as irksome as a plague of em-dashes.

Nevertheless, can we resurrect the semicolon, once in a while? I just reviewed an otherwise excellent first novel by Philipp Meyer called American Rust. While both his text and dialogue bristle with trendy em-dashes—often used where humble commas would happily suffice—over 384 pages this talented up-and-coming author employs not a single semicolon. The absence made me mournful. We writers stash few enough nuts and bolts in our toolbox; surely we can’t afford to fling such an elegant punctuation mark in the bin.

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