One of my favorite movies is “The Freshman,” a 1990 comedy starring Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando in which Brando parodies his Vito Corleone character in “The Godfather.” The plot is complex, but it involves a college student who becomes entangled with the Mafia and is “pressured” (as only the Mafia can pressure) into capturing and serving up endangered animals—including a Komodo dragon!—at parties costing hundreds of thousands of dollars a head. (Don’t worry—the Komodo dragon survives unscathed.)
Late in the film during one such party, longtime Miss America pageant host Bert Parks sings a version of “There She Is” as the dragon is revealed to the would-be diners. It goes like this: “There he is…your Komodo dragon; there he is, one of eight. With so many species, he took the town by storm with his continental taste and charm….” I love this scene. Something about it—it makes me laugh every time I see it. If you haven’t seen “The Freshman,” look it up. It’s awesome.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about my second-favorite punctuation mark, the semicolon; today I thought I’d write about my favorite—the em dash. Steve once said he could immediately tell if an article had been written by me simply by noting the presence or lack of em dashes. While I’d rather have my writing identified by my singular voice, if it has to be synonymous with a punctuation mark, let it be the em dash. After all, like me, it’s versatile, useful, and has a flair for the dramatic.
The em dash (—), appropriately, is used to provide emphasis. It can stand in place of the comma, parenthesis, or colon, depending upon the circumstances.
Let’s start with the colon.
The em dash can be used in place of a colon when you want to emphasize the end of your sentence. It adds a certain flair, or drama, that a colon lacks. Consider these two sentences:
- When Steve heard that the new “Star Wars” movie was going to be released the same day as “Hateful Eight,” he knew which movie he’d pick: “Star Wars.”
- When Steve heard that the new “Star Wars” movie was going to be released the same day as “Hateful Eight,” he knew which movie he’d pick—“Star Wars.”
The colon alerts you that more information is coming. The dash, on the other hand, emphasizes that information. It’s a stronger statement. No way is Steve going to see the new Quentin Tarantino movie when the fate of the galaxy is at stake!
On to commas and parentheses.
A parenthetical phrase (one that’s not essential to the framing sentence) can be set off by commas, parentheses, or em dashes. Deciding which to use depends upon how much emphasis you wish to place on the interrupting content. Commas ascribe the least amount of emphasis and—as you can probably intuit—em dashes ascribe the most. Regardless of what punctuation you use, to be an appropriate parenthetical phrase, you must be able to remove the content in between the punctuation marks with no detriment to the rest of the sentence. Consider:
- After watching the “Star Wars” movies, all six of them, I’m not looking forward to a seventh.
- After watching the “Star Wars” movies (all six of them) I’m not looking forward to a seventh.
- After watching the “Star Wars” movies—all six of them—I’m not looking forward to a seventh.
You can see my irritation grow with each sentence, and the only thing that’s changed is the punctuation. (Note, also, that you can remove the verbiage between the punctuation, and the sentence still makes sense.)
So what does this have to do with the Komodo dragon? Because, as I started to write this, I thought of that scene in “The Freshman” and, suddenly, “There She Is” was in my head. Only, in my excitement to write about my favorite mark, I modified it: “There it is, my beloved em dash. There it is, so ornate.” It reminded me of the Komodo dragon song, and the juxtaposition was too good not to share.
Am I the only one who does this—replaces well-known song lyrics with new lyrics to suit a certain situation? What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And, if you’ve seen “The Freshman,” what did you think?