Thursday, February 15, 2018

How to Get the Most from the Colon and Em Dash



The Colon and Em Dash    :  — 
Part 1 of 2

     The colon is used in nonfiction mostly as an introducer for explanatory statements, examples, and series lists. It can be used for all of those purposes in fiction, too, but it finds much use in storytelling in its other function, which it shares with the em dash: setting off and drawing attention to ideas. The colon has a more formal, measured look, while the em dash apposes the ideas in a more abrupt and informal way. Since fiction is often informal or even conversational in style, and since fiction writers usually want set-off matter to have a more dramatic presentation, the em dash is probably used more often, but it’s your call. Both are correct and widely used.

Use a Colon or an Em Dash to Set Off an Idea from What Follows It
     Notice below that either works, but the em dash makes a more abrupt and emphatic lead-in to the information that follows it.
     Mina heard a click on the phone line and realized the downstairs extension had been picked up: somebody else was in the house.
Mina heard a click on the phone line and realized the downstairs extension had been picked up—somebody else was in the house.

You Can Use a Pair of Em Dashes to More Emphatically Set Off Internal Material
     Em dashes used in this way have an effect different from that of parentheses or commas. Whereas parentheses tend to minimize the importance of what’s inside them, and pairs of commas essentially equalize enclosed material with what’s around it, em dash pairs point big flashing arrows inward toward the enclosed material.
     I nearly dropped my teeth when Harvey Jackson (the only person we considered to be above suspicion) called to confess.
     I nearly dropped my teeth when Harvey Jackson, the only person we considered to be above suspicion, called to confess.
     I nearly dropped my teeth when Harvey Jackson—the only person we considered to be above suspicion—called to confess.
     Like material inside parentheses, anything inside a pair of em dashes is compositionally insulated from the larger sentence around it. It can be just about anything you want it to be—a word, a phrase, a sentence fragment, or even, as we see below, an entire independent clause that could stand on its own as a sentence, but is here used as emphasized internal content.
     The Ames brothers had deserted him when things got tough—he was disgusted with himself now for not having seen that coming—and now he was alone.

A pair of em dashes is also handy to clarify the distinction between internally punctuated items.
     The example below has series items separated by commas:
     Jim and Bobby Thomas, the new bobsledding team, and the TV crew were all opposed to the location.
     How many series items are there above? Are “Jim and Bobby Thomas” and “the new bobsledding team” two separate series items separated by a comma, or is “Jim and Bobby Thomas, the new bobsledding team” a single item with an internal comma? There’s no way at all for us to know.
     Jim and Bobby Thomas—the new bobsledding team—and the TV crew were all opposed to the location.
     Above, we’ve changed “the new bobsledding team” from just another item in a series list of separate items into an emphasizing appositive that amplifies on what comes immediately before it. It’s now crystal clear that Jim and Bobby Thomas are the bobsledding team.

     Em dashes are also used to indicate an abrupt break in speech and to indicate a change in the way something is said. We'll cover these handy fiction uses next week.
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     This topic and many others of particular use to storytellers are included in Writers' Devils, the best guide of its kind, available as an e-book for $9.99 at Amaon's Kindle store:
Writers' Devils at Amazon

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for this clear and thorough explanation. I'm looking forward to reading this series.

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  2. Dan, a very helpful post.I think it's also important that writers use these devices with some discretion. I'm now seeing articles in newspapers(which have slashed their editorial staffs) with multiple sets of parentheses, dashes, etc. in one paragraph.

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  3. As a former English teacher as well as a writer, I believe knowledge of correct grammar is important. Good explanations!

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  4. Very helpful. I'm currently rereading the old standby - The Elements of Style - and it's nice to have reminders such as this.

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