Writers get jazzed up about punctuation, with good reason. Those dots and squiggles have a lot to do with the character and clarity of writing. And there’s no mark that exemplifies the many uses of punctuation better than the em-dash.

I was reminded of the em-dash by Jeremiah Shoaf of Typewolf, whose newsletter included a link to this short essay on “my favorite punctuation mark—the em dash.” The essay is written in a style lawyers shouldn’t emulate (we should strive to be the voice of reason, not literary affect), but it comes close to expressing my own thoughts about the em-dash.

The dash is versatile, appealing, unjustly shunned by some, used to excess by others, and not exactly essential—but nothing else has quite the same effect. These are the qualities that lead some to call the em-dash “lovely” (a word even the most jazzed of punctuation enthusiasts would have difficulty applying to other marks).

But the essay admits the em-dash has a dark side. As illustrated in this Slate article, the dash is a crutch for scatterbrained writers. It lets them put a thought anywhere, like sticky putty. When overused, em-dashes make writing feel jumbled and confused. Punctuation must always clarify. So it’s understandable that many writers avoid the mark altogether rather than risk a page that looks like a game of pick-up sticks.

I don’t think legal writers should be afraid to use em-dashes. Bryan Garner praises the em-dash for its ability to “clarify a sentence that is clogged up with commas—or even one that’s otherwise lusterless.” Yes, dashes can be (and are) abused. But that’s why editing exists; to get rid of first-draft clutter. Used correctly, dashes serve exactly that purpose. They tighten and sharpen—and they have a particular ability to brighten, which good legal writers use to their advantage.

Update: I originally used ’em dash’ instead of ’em-dash’. Then I noticed that Garner uses the hyphenated version. After a cursory investigation I can’t say which is standard, but since I also used ’em-dash’ in a previous post, I’ve updated this one to be consistent.

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