My headline for this post is a bit tongue in cheek. Developments in grammar and punctuation may not really rise to the level of “alarming.” This despite the convictions of one typesetter I knew long ago, who assumed grammar came straight from heaven and on occasion wept at grammatical violations. But in any event, I’ve noticed lately in three different manuscripts under edit an innovation worth comment, if not necessarily alarm. I’m calling it the serial em dash.
The serial em dash occurs when a writer uses three or more em dashes in a single sentence. Here’s an example of my own construction: “One church we studied—St. Barnabas Episcopal—based its politics in the act of the eucharist, while another—First Baptist of Richmond—centered its politics more on the sermon and its contents.” And here’s a second example: “The chancellor—he had been awake half the night—came downstairs—in an angry mood.”
In more than thirty years of publishing, I’m only now seeing the serial em dash employed, and recently I’ve seen it used by at least three writers. I’m not sure why it’s developing—perhaps it’s only sloppiness and unawareness with writing and punctuation conventions.
In any event, no more than two em dashes in a sentence is the convention. Especially in my second example above, it’s clear that the use of the serial em dash makes the sentence confusing. It causes the reader to stumble over which clauses exactly go together, and it could be cured simply by removing the last em dash (the one before “in an angry mood”).
Parentheses may also be substituted for the em dashes in cases when two or more objects of the sentence are in reference. So my first example might more conventionally read: “One church we studied (St. Barnabas Episcopal) based its politics in the act of the eucharist, while another (First Baptists of Richmond) centered its politics more on the sermon and its contents.”
Em dashes suggest in the reader’s mind and scanning a significant slowing down or pause. Parentheses connote less of a pause. So using em dashes where parentheses might better work can make the reading more clunky. And, as we’ve seen, em dashes misused can confuse rather than clarify a sentence.
All considered, a word to authors: if you’re tempted (for whatever reason or lack of reason) to use three or more em dashes in a sentence, don’t. There are other and better tools to hand. Let’s bury the serial em dash before it takes on even more currency.