A punctuation plague is raging through contemporary prose, indulged in by ordinarily excellent writers and hacks alike. It’s the “em dash,” writes Lionel Shriver for Standpoint—that punchy, aggressive punctuation mark beloved for its flexibility. It can replace the geriatric semicolon, linking two elements of a single argument, or provide the function of parentheses—but without the sense of gratuitous digression.
But we must have some restraint: em—dashes—are—used—way—too—frequently, and great style requires variety. “Since you can bung them in any old place,” Shriver writes of their Morse-code ubiquity, “em-dashes are the resort of the lazy.” The semicolon, too, is flexible. “It may imply relatedness; it may imply contrast.” It can delineate the constituent parts of a list in a way that seems elegant, unhurried, and logical. Conscientious writers would do well to resurrect the semicolon “once in a while.”