In Slate, Noreen Malone makes The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash. She says it undercuts good writing, yet writers are using it more. To make her point, she oversalts her own prose with the em:
The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don’t you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won’t be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that’s not yet complete?
Having thus revealed the em dash’s peril, Malone later concludes, “Leave the damn em dash alone.”
I suggest not. The em dash is a good thing, albeit the kind where too much good is bad. As we say in software development, that is a feature, not a bug.
Of the em dash’s many uses, the main one is to set off a phrase with greater emphasis. Used in tandem—as here—em dashes are like commas or parentheses, only more assertive. Used alone, an em dash heightens what comes next—more drama if no comma.
Em dashes are effective for emphasis because they are rare. Use them too much and you defeat their purpose, as Malone demonstrates with her wanton em dash abuse. But is today’s writing increasingly like that? Malone asserts such a trend but caveats that it’s “just anecdotal observation; I admit I haven’t found a way to crunch the numbers.”
Here’s a way to crunch the numbers: Extract the text of hundreds of articles published in Slate from 1996 to 2011. Focus on the sections “The Good Word” (where Malone’s article is filed) and “Books.” They seem like good candidates for the at-risk writerly behavior that Malone fears.
When I did that, I found 616 articles through the end of June 2011, totaling 697,422 words. Because different years had widely varying amounts of articles, I split the articles into two periods: 1996 to 2004 and 2005 to 2011.
The earlier period had 7.6 em dashes per thousand words; the later period had 7.8. That difference is noise. Malone’s peers are not spiraling into an abyss of increasing em-dashery.
So despite Malone’s concerns, I suspect that Slate’s writers are using the em dash to good effect. They know that with punctuation, as with salt, an occasional dash will do you good.