How To Use An Em Dash, According To Cormac McCarthy

How To Use An Em Dash, According To Cormac McCarthy
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Novelist Cormac McCarthy has spent twenty years editing what feels like the opposite of a novel: scientific papers by faculty members and postdocs at the Santa Fe Institute. Some of the scientists he worked with have paraphrased and compiled McCarthy’s best writing advice. It applies to all kinds of writing, from emails to novels.

As an em dash abuser, I especially liked this tip:

Dashes should emphasise the clauses you consider most important — without using bold or italics — and not only for defining terms. (Parentheses can present clauses more quietly and gently than commas.)

McCarthy has more punctuation advice. By advising on how to use different marks, he reveals their purpose and effect on the reading experience:

Don’t lean on semicolons as a crutch to join loosely linked ideas. This only encourages bad writing. You can occasionally use contractions such as isn’t, don’t, it’s and shouldn’t. Don’t be overly formal. And don’t use exclamation marks to call attention to the significance of a point. You could say ‘surprisingly’ or ‘intriguingly’ instead, but don’t overdo it. Use these words only once or twice per paper.

He recommends deleting unnecessary commas, and explains how to find them:

Commas denote a pause in speaking. The phrase “In contrast” at the start of a sentence needs a comma to emphasise that the sentence is distinguished from the previous one, not to distinguish the first two words of the sentence from the rest of the sentence. Speak the sentence aloud to find pauses.

McCarthy isn’t an em dash guy himself—more of a “three words and a period” guy. His prose style resembles an Ernest Hemingway who has still killed himself but managed to keep writing. But he’s not teaching people how to write like him. He’s teaching them how to write effectively.


  • Punctuation advice from Cormac McCarthy – who is probably the author most famous for not following the rules of grammar and punctuation. His Pulitzer-winning “The Road” is a masterpiece, but it is famous for using “unconventional” grammar and punctuation – no use of quotation marks when people are speaking, no apostrophes in contractions like “can’t”, commas are used only irregularly, …

    I guess you’ve gotta know the rules first in order to break them!

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