Call me stupid,
but up until last year I had never heard of the em-dash. Now I see it everywhere. For those who are as unenlightened as I was, the em-dash is used to mark an interruption in a sentence. A great many people use dashes in this way but that, apparently, is wrong. So why the proliferation of the em-dash? It could be because of its quaint use of a dash in its name, kind-of ironic since it is used instead of a dash in a sentence. Or perhaps it is just the em-dash’s time in the sun. Do punctuation marks go in and out of fashion, just like paisley print? Perhaps.
Case one—Faulkner. A randomly picked sentence from The Unvanquished, “We left Ab Snopes and his men in the woods beyond the bivouac, and Granny and Ringo and I drove up to Colonel Newberry’s tent at exactly the right time, and Granny passed the sentry and went into the tent, walking thin and straight, with the shawl over her shoulders and Mrs. Compton’s hat on her head and the parasol in one hand and hers and Ringo’s General Smith order in the other, and Ringo and I sat in the wagon and looked at the cook fires about the grove and smelled the coffee and the meat.”
Try reading that aloud in one breath. I dare you. Point is: Faulkner used commas in a way that would be unthinkable today. If you showed this sentence to my writing group, we would all suggest dividing it into separate sentences. Of course nobody is Faulkner, so that may be an unfair example.
When I was in college, the favored punctuation was the semi-colon. You saw it everywhere. Now, sadly, it is confined mostly to non-fiction. It has had its day. Enter the em-dash.
But maybe I am being to judgmental. Let’s look at the longest sentence ever written. I won’t quote it here. It’s too long. You can find it at http://www.theblogmocracy.com/2010/04/15/the-longest-sentence-ever-written/ . Semi-colons and em-dashes join forces with, of all things, the asterisk!
But then the sentence was written in the 18th century when they didn’t understand fashion.
Boy, would my writing group have a field day with that one!