Taking an Ax to My Old Flame—

While my subconscious works out a problem in my romantic comedy, I’ve been editing the first novel I completed—fourteen years ago. As I read, it became apparent I was a little too fond of the em dash. I think I used at least one on every page. So I decided to run a search for them.

emheartIn a manuscript of 89,000 words, I’d used 543 em dashes! Seriously. Five hundred forty-three. I wouldn’t have thought that possible.

Don’t get me wrong. The em dash is legitimate punctuation. I use it to indicate an interruption, add emphasis, or a sudden change of thought. For instance:

“If you’re asking me to—”

The man—swear to God—had giggled.

She would trust him again—in time.

The party lasted all night—where were you, by the way?

I could use parentheses, colons, and commas in place of some of the em dashes, but my fiction is usually informal, so the dashes fit.

In my defense, I’ve learned a thing or two about writing in fourteen years. I no longer have such a blatant crush on that bit of punctuation. I kept all the em dashes used to indicate interrupted dialogue, but many of the others were not used to good effect and bit the dust. The total now stands at a more reasonable 384, but I still have rounds of editing to do. And I haven’t checked the ellipsis count, yet.

Do you have a punctuation weakness?



Might as well face it, I’m addicted to …

Commas! There. I said it. I’m a comma addict. I love them. They’re beautiful little things that add pause and sense and order to sentences—if you know how to use them correctly. Apparently, my lack of education is appalling.

commaYou’re probably aware of this quote:

“I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.” — Oscar Wilde

Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but after a few hours of inserting, deleting, and sometimes re-inserting commas on one recent editing day, I decided to get smart and refresh my knowledge of comma usage rules. I say refresh because I thought I’d learned all the rules at one point. Not so.

What I discovered is that I use commas where they seem appropriate to me, but sometimes often I do so in ignorance. It’s not entirely my fault. I was taught the bogus rules of always using a comma before but and never using one before because. But other rules I’ve been breaking, I imagine some teacher tried to pound into my thick skull at one time.

I’m in luck. Recently, one of my sons bought me a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, so I am currently experimenting to see if an old dog can learn new comma tricks. I started with nearly 5,100 commas in my 91,000+ word manuscript. I’m re-evaluating each one. That’s not quite as tedious as it sounds. So far, this exercise has resulted in many improved sentences in ways other than comma use. Even my readers who don’t care a whit about commas will appreciate that.

Here’s a link to the excellent punctuation section of the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL).


How do you punctuate after a terminal em dash?

A particular use of punctuation jumped out at me as I read a recently published book.

In general, I observe punctuation rules, so I’d like to know if the one used in this book follows an old rule, a new rule, or a house style. I question whether it’s a house style though–unless those change depending on the author—because I have books published by the same house in which this particular style is not used.

EM DASH — This author, as many of us do, used an em dash to indicate interrupted speech. But what struck me was a difference in the punctuation used after that dash. For instance, I would write such a sentence this way:

“I couldn’t possibly let you—”

“Let me? Let me!” His outrage jerked him to his feet. “Since when do I require your permission?”

But if those lines appeared in this book, the first would have been punctuated this way:

“I couldn’t possibly let you—.”

“Let me? Let me!” His outrage jerked him to his feet. “Since when do I require your permission?”

You’ll notice the period after the em dash. I’ve since pulled novels off my shelves searching for sentences with interrupted speech. I haven’t found one yet that duplicates this author/editor’s construction.

Am I behind the times or have I, and countless other authors, been doing it wrong all along?

Your turn: Please tell me, how do you punctuate after a terminal em dash?

(See my next post on using punctuation with the terminal ellipsis.)