Written by Denise Loock

Comma usage often confuses authors even after I’ve explained the reasons some sentences require them and others don’t. For instance, the compound sentence vs. the compound verb:

John walked to his favorite restaurant and ordered sushi for lunch.
John walked to his favorite restaurant, and he ordered sushi for lunch.

If you add restrictive and non-restrictive clauses plus a smattering of phrases with multiple adjectives to the mix, then even the most knowledgeable editor may humbly admit that yes, commas can be confusing.

So, to help my clients—and me—avoid some convoluted comma conundrums, I encourage them to make friends with the em dash, the most versatile mark of punctuation:

  • It can connect two independent thoughts without a conjunction (especially helpful when the sentence already contains one or more conjunctions).
  • It can be placed before or after a phrase—also before or after items in a series.
  • It can appear before or after a single word to create emphasis.
    It is the perfect substitute for a colon or semicolon in dialogue and running text.

Another reason I advise clients to use em dashes is to wean them from their addiction to exclamation points, italics, and all-caps:

Allison told her daughter to clean her room, again.
Allison told her daughter to clean her room AGAIN!
Allison told her daughter to clean her room—again.

For this reason alone, I would buy the em dash a high-end box of chocolates if I could. “But that’s not all,” as the TV infomercials proclaim. Em dashes also have these amazing benefits:

  • They add clarity when several commas are already present.
  • They add clarity when another mark of punctuation is used.
  • They help clients avoid the overuse of parentheses.
  • They reduce the misuse of semicolons.

Are you convinced yet?

Before I end my ode to dashes, I’ll add a few tips on using them:

  • Never use more than one set of dashes in a sentence. Otherwise, readers will lose the main point of the sentence (happens with comma overuse too).
  • Like any other mark of punctuation, dashes can be overused or underused. The Greek poet Hesiod’s words apply here too: “Moderation is best in all things.”
  • Avoid using more than one set of dashes in a paragraph. Instead use a colon, parentheses, or even better—use two sentences.

To conclude this post, I’ll let you ponder the wisdom of using an em dash in the following examples. If you think a different mark of punctuation would be a better fit, please leave a comment.

Grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness—these attributes define God’s relationship with humans.

What if—God forbid!—Jackie has been in an accident?

When I sat on the couch to watch a TV show with my daughter—a treat for finishing her homework—I was stunned by the foul language the actors used.

Joan slammed her fist on the table. “How could you think—”
“How could I not think you were cheating!” Stan huffed.

Denise Loock is the owner of Lightning Editing Services. She teaches Editing Devotionals 101 and Sentence Diagramming 101 for The PEN Institute and is the director of PENCON, the only annual conference for Christian proofreaders and editors.