Confession of a Punctuation Pedant

I have something to tell you. It may make you laugh, it may confuse you, and you might disagree with it, but it’s a part of my personality and I don’t know if I am ever going to get over it.

I have a pathological hatred of em-dashes.

Before I go on, I must give the obligatory disclaimers. Yes, I do acknowledge that there are cases in which the em-dash is proper punctuation. Yes, some of the best writers in the world use the em-dash. Yes, I myself have used the em-dash on multiple occasions, though I feel dirty every time I do and strive mightily to avoid it. There are even some cases were the em-dash is *urp* the best punctuation to use. *swallows gastroesophageal reflux*

My aversion to the em-dash can be traced back to an incident when I was in sixth grade. I had written a paper for my English class, and though I don’t remember what it was about, I do remember sending it to my mom for proofreading. I was pretty excited, because I figured that I’d done a good job and she would tell me so. I had always been told that I was a good writer, so I had come to accept that as a fact, as if anything I wrote was automatically brilliant. I mean, I was a good writer, right? How could a good writer write something that wasn’t good?

Instead, my mom broke from the ego-stroking that I was used to and gave me a nice, large helping of real criticism. One of the things that she mentioned was that I should cut down on my use of dashes. Dashes, she said, were a mark of lazy writing.

I’m not sure exactly why I’ve taken that so much to heart, but I think it probably has to do with my further experiences. As my academic career dragged on, full of high-school-level literary analysis and tame research papers with thin bibliographies, I started really noticing the em-dash, and especially noticing that it seemed to crop up far more often in less-polished works. Eventually, it got to the point where I would twitch upon seeing one without even reading the surrounding text. Today, I average fewer than one em-dash per page, at the most. My senior thesis contains only three em-dashes, excluding those which appear in block quotes; that comes to a total of fewer than one em-dash per ten pages. My novel draft currently contains a grand total of zero em-dashes.

Ultimately, I think this falls into the category of my bizarre idiosyncrasies, along with my general avoidance of bitter flavors and inexplicable love for numbers that are divisible by three. My brain has latched onto it, and it will always be in there, popping up to excise the em-dash from my writing like a line of computer code seared into my synapses.

This has more of an effect on my everyday life than those other two, though. I can generally steer clear of bitter things by not drinking coffee or eating Brussels sprouts, and the love of multiples of three doesn’t come with a corresponding hatred of other numbers. The only numbers I really don’t like are weird, even things, like 14 and 46, and even then it’s not as if I actively cringe at them. They’re just… kind of meh, that’s all.

Em-dashes, on the other hand, are a double-whammy of real-life inconvenience: they cause inexplicable twitching, and they are everywhere. I have to keep myself from going off at them when I’m called on to proofread things, because if I just went by my own instincts, I’d endeavor to replace every single fucking em-dash in the goddamn world with something better. Heck, I would even rewrite the wording of those cases where the em-dash is the only correct punctuation, just to get rid of the damn em-dash. It’s kind of a problem.

Do any fellow grammar-people have a strange personal Berserk Button like this? It would be quite nice to know that I’m not alone.

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