Can a comma be used in conjunction with an em dash?
In the Ann Coulter post, you wrote:
If this woman … is considered by the conservative movement to be one of the most important conservatives in America,—and she is so considered—then conservatism is a joke.
It’s either a dash or a comma, not both!
An em dash or M dash, or rather the phrase set off by an em dash or two em dashes, forms a logical break from the main structure of a sentence. The dash is not a part of the syntactical structure of the sentence, it is a break, a detour, from that structure. So, if the part of the sentence immediately preceding (or following) the dash would have needed a comma (or any other punctuation) in the absence of the dash-enclosed phrase, it still needs a comma in the presence of the dash-enclosed phrase. The dash doesn’t replace punctuation that would have been needed in the absence of the dash.
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The test of correctness is: if the dash(es) and the dash-enclosed phrase were removed, does the remaining sentence stand on its own? In this case, the comma following “America” is needed in the sentence: “If this woman is considered by the conservative movement to be one of the most important conservatives in America, then conservatism is a joke.” Therefore the comma must remain in the sentence when the dash-enclosed phrase is added: “If this woman is considered by the conservative movement to be one of the most important conservatives in America, [—and she is so considered—] then conservatism is a joke.”
This kind of comma-dash combination is not seen much or at all nowadays, but that’s because of a lack of attention to sentence structure. In older writing it was fairly common.
By the way, the single most frequent change I make when editing readers’ comments for posting is to add commas which are needed but which the commenter has left out. For example, some commenters regularly omit the required comma between two independent clauses. They would have written the sentence about Ann Coulter without the comma, like this: “If this woman is considered by the conservative movement to be one of the most important conservatives in America then conservatism is a joke.”
Gilda A. writes:
“Can a comma be used in conjunction with an em dash?”
Where did you get your rule from?
The Chicago Manual of Style (Fourteenth Edition) says:
“5.111 If the context calls for a dash where a comma would ordinarily separate two clauses, the comma should be omitted:
“Because the data had not yet been completely analyzed—the reason for this will be discussed later—the publication of the report was delayed.”
This is Copy Editing 101.
I don’t have a problem with the example given in the Manual of Style, but I think that’s because it’s a short, strictly utilitarian sentence used in a utilitarian environment, and the comma-dash combo would seem extravagant and old fashioned in such a context. But in a longer, more elaborate sentence such as I wrote, the comma-dash combination is better in my opinion. So I disagree with the Manual of Style’s complete prohibition of the comma. My position is not based the Manual (which I own and generally treat as an authority), but on my own reading of many authors, and my own experience as a writer as to what works and is right. In the 19th and early 20th century, the comma-dash combination was often used and was presumably considered correct. I also note that the Manual does not deal with my point as to why the comma is needed. I think I make a good argument.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 03, 2011 08:48 AM | Send
If I get around to it, I will find a couple of examples from my own writings where I used the comma- dash combination and where the absence of the comma would not have been right.