The Case of the Missing Em-Dash

This month my writers group commented on a substantive revision of a short story they’d seen earlier. I composed much of the revision on my little laptop, an Aeus two-in-one. I like that device a lot, but sometimes the keyboard is so sensitive that if I barely touch the trac-pad, the device bounces the cursor up into who-knows-where, or  highlights whole bunches of text and then deletes them when I start to type my next word. It’s maddening and it affects how I approach the machine. I make many more mistakes on that keyboard.

This meant that while the story version my friends had was pretty clean, it had some weird punctuation typos. In at least two places, periods were missing, although the first letter of the next sentence was capitalized, and clearly I thought I’d put a period there. In one passage, both the closing comma and the closing quotation marks were gone, leading to a confusing bit of dialogue. And at the end of one section, just before a point of view shift, a character’s thought ends in mid-word, and there is no double-dash (em-dash) to show that.

The thing was, though, the absence of the em-dash was intentional.


I grew up calling the single-space horizontal mark, like the one I just used in single-space, a hyphen. It separates two words that are connected in some way, like single-space, or director-producer. The words have a relationship but aren’t quite close enough to be a compound word. In the Olden Times, before word processing, people used the hyphen to show that the word at the end of the line was going to continue on the next line. Don’t worry, boys and girls, that was long ago and you don’t really have to understand it.

I called two hyphens in a row a dash. A dash can be used like a comma, a semicolon or a colon to separate a clause from other clauses. Usually –not always –it creates a different tone, an emphasis or a sense of breathlessness or intentional choppiness in the text. It can also be used to show that a sentence has been cut short before coming to a natural ending. It can be used in dialogue to show characters interrupting–

–not even listening t–

–each other.

It’s called an em-dash, by the way, because it is the same length as a lower-case M. A hyphen is called an en-dash because it is the length of a lower-case N.

When a writer has chosen to tell a story in close third person, and something happens to that character to abruptly stop their POV (unconsciousness? death? ascension?) an em-dash is one way to show that the termination is abrupt and probably not voluntary. Say, for instance, the character is trapped and about to be shunted magically into another realm. You could abruptly end that character’s thoughts in mid-sentence–

–with an em-dash.

Or you could chose not to.


Who in their right mind would chose not to? Well, that would be me.


Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and trying my hand at more short fiction. I’m reading more short fiction, and I’m sending out a lot of short fiction, and getting it back with nice rejection letters. Here’s what I’ve learned from this, I think: 1) my prose is decent; 2) my characterization is pretty good; 3) I can craft a story; and 4) my stories are conventional. #4 is probably close to a kiss of death. On the other hand, my brain just doesn’t function well in an experimental manner. I enjoy reading experimental prose, but I can’t craft it. To make my work stand out, I have to do something different with my conventional stories, and one option seems to be, tell a conventional story with a slightly less conventional voice.

The story in question starts with an evil minion. She’s virtually a stereotype (intentionally) except that she doesn’t believe she’s a minion. She sees herself as an Evil Overlordess. (I had to do that. Just to see what it looks like.) The disconnect between the things she thinks and the things that happen is supposed to be horrifying and funny at the same time.

I wanted to play with the conventional storytelling language, and write a sentence that is truly chopped off mid-thought, you know, the way David Mitchell, who wrote Black Swan Green, Slade House, and Cloud Atlas, does. This is not to imply that I think I’m anywhere near the category of David Mitchell, only that he does things like this and makes them work.

It sounds like I strained my brain and struggled, and the wildest, most innovative, non-conventional thing I could think to do in my story was leave out one punctuation mark. It sounds that way because it is that way.

My friends had been primed to see this as a typo, not a choice, but it was, and is, a choice. We’ll see what happens. I doubt very much that any editor is going to reject the story saying, “We would have purchased this, but it was missing an em-dash, so…”

And by the way, no one’s having any trouble rejecting it. It’s had two rejections so far, one encouraging, with no em-dash comments, so I guess I’ll keep playing, keep taking baby-steps, and see where, if anywhere, they lead me. And I’ll leave out the em-dash–at least for now.

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9 Responses to The Case of the Missing Em-Dash

  1. Terry says:

    This gives a lotto think about. It’s funny, but I don’t spend as much time working with punctuation as you do.

    Also, you are a fantastic writer (not decent). Your characters are interesting and unusual (a plus), and you can definitely craft a story.

    Keep submitting.

  2. Marion says:

    Terry, thank you so much for your encouragement. I think I pay slightly more attention to punctuation now that I write reviews and columns, but a friend just pointed out that the “en-dash” is actually slightly longer than a hyphen and is usually used to show a span of years (2014-2017, for example). I’m always learning!

  3. Marion says:

    Award winning writer Brian Fies (I always refer to him that way) pointed out that the en-dash is actually wider than a hyphen and is primarily used to show a span of years; 2015-2016 for instance, on in place of “versus” in describing a contest; Warrior – Thunder. Thanks, Brian!

  4. Mary Varley says:

    You’re such a rebel!
    Personally, em-dash is one of my favorite punctuation marks, used precisely as you define.
    As far as the twelve-year-olds who are reading your stuff – obviously they haven’t got a clue! What Terry said!!

  5. Marion says:

    Thanks for the kind words!

  6. Marta says:

    Well, I’m sticking to my guns. It probably reads far differently without the Asus-inspired punctuation problems, but in context it seems like a mistake. Mitchell gets away with it because he accustoms us to it, and that’s hard to do at short-story length. Editors almost expect such shenanigans from him, and are primed for it. The rest of us, not so much.

    Spoiler Alert: R Silverberg wrote a book called “Up the Line,” first person present tense. The protagonist is a time traveler who has broken the rules, and knows that the other time cops will simply go back to his childhood and knock him off, and he will disappear from history. The book ends in the middle of a sentence. The editor finished the sentence. A dumb move, but indicative of how the mind works.

    Chip Delaney’s “Dhalgren,” like Joyce’s “Ulysses,” begins with a sentence that ends the unfinished final sentence of the book. But both these are long, long books and the author has plenty of time to make the reader conscious that a “mistake” might be no mistake at all.

    I like it that you’re playing with your writing on a micro-level, and I applaud it. But I am sticking to my guns about this one. See? Stuck.

  7. Marion says:

    I knew you would, Marta. And yes, Bob Silverberg’s book, and that story about it, came to mind immediately!

  8. Terry says:

    This Terry agrees with the other Terry that you are a fabulous writer. Those nicely phrased, personal rejections will shortly turn into enthusiastic acceptances. Keep up the writing, Marion — I swear you’re getting better with every story.

    And I liked the way the line just cut off in mid-sentence with no punctuation. It was a short, sharp shock that I thought worked quite well. But hey, the only thing I’ve ever published between soft covers was a law review article, and originality in such writing is highly frowned upon.

  9. Marion says:

    You’ve had quite a bit of literary criticism published, Terry.

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