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The Yang Slinger: XLIX
Editors and traditionalists will tell you the long dash (aka: em dash) is the literary merging of herpes and Marjorie Taylor Greene's voice. Editors and traditionalists are wrong.
I love the long dash—and here’s why.
The long dash is amazing at emphasizing a point—especially this type of point. Like, you’re writing about the otherworldly achievements of Patrick Mahomes, and you want to uber emphasize that the Chiefs quarterback cannot be stopped. Now, you can use a comma for decent effect. And, certainly, that might work. Really, it might. I mean, Patrick Mahomes is special.1
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But, truly—Patrick Mahomes is special.2
See, that’s the power of the long dash (aka: the em dash). The long dash brings the oomph. It drops the Pow! It pounds a point in the reader’s head—then pounds it again and again and again.3
To me, it’s the writing equivalent of Thor’s hammer.
And yet …
I know many people who abhor the long dash. Back when I was writing for Sports Illustrated, an endless string of editors made it their collective life mission to delete three out of four long dashes and replace them with commas. These were (without fail) white men in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Princeton educated. Well-heeled. Loyalists to Izod and Ron Beible and a brandy after work. To these folks, nestled before the fireplace with a folded-up New Yorker and a copy of some yellowed F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, the long dash was crude and colloquial and the stuff of unsophisticated dolts. It was a device the hoi polloi two floors down at People Magazine might break out to emphasize that Christina Aguilera was now dating Fred Durst—and they seem so in love! “I was told by an editor long ago that the dash was the lazy man’s way of simply not figuring out how to properly employ commas,” says Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post, “but I disagree.”
“I just had a bit of a tussle with one of my editors over my use of the em dash,” says Amy Bass, the author and CNN opinion writer. “Like, this happened an hour ago. And I told him, and I don’t know why I know this, that women use em dashes more than men. Which is true. But I don’t know how I know that. So now I consider it not only superior to the comma, but a downright badass feminist move.”
So here’s my question—really, the question for this week’s substack: What’s better: The long dash or the comma?
And,—who has the right to say?4
I have a confession to make.
In researching this post, I reached out to about two dozen writing peers. And my expectation was that there’d be a fairly even split in the long dash v. comma debate. I mean, just pick up a newspaper or magazine, or visit ESPN.com or Vanity Fair or whatever. You’ll see different writers have different approaches. Some love the winding sentence with commas aplenty. Other dig the buttery mojo of the long dash—so smooth, so commanding.5
So, again, I assumed there’d be a down-the-middle split.
There (cough) was not.
Jemele Hill: “The long dash is superior.”
Steve Rushin: “I mean, I love a comma, and tend to overuse them, and make no apologies for doing so, but I’m even more fond of long dashes.”
Adrienne Lewin: “Big fan of the long dash—more expressive, breaks up sentence structure, plus how many commas can one story have?”
Chuck Culpepper: “I am a huge fan of the long dash but I often find myself wondering if I’m using it properly.”
Russ Bengtson: “I love the em dash and probably use it too much. But I think it gives writing more space, seems less run-on than commas.”
Amie Just: “I’m team em-dash. And I don’t just sprinkle them in either. My copy is riddled with them.”
As you can see, the vast majority prefer the long dash. And, to be clear, I do, too. The long dash is sleek. The long dash is smooth. It’s a mint green 1951 Chevrolet Bel Air, and the comma is a … hmm, like a brown 1980 Datsun 510. The comma looks like a booger. The long dash looks like a diving-into-the-water Mark Spitz. The comma looks like a post-corn on the cob poop. The long dash looks like the new Jordans.
And, for me, the long dash is dopalicious because something about its general nature/optical setup prevents a writer from overusing it. I mean, pick up any Time Inc. magazine from the 1990s and you’ll see a dizzying buffet of (editor-inserted) commas, breaking up sentences for the very purpose of breaking up sentences. There were times at Sports Illustrated when, I, genuinely, wondered, whether, my, editors, were, paid, by, the, comma. It was infuriating, but—even worse—it was ugly. When you do this job long enough, you start seeing a page filled with words not as mere page and words, but as a painting. There’s beauty in the mixing of short sentences and long sentences.
Of the one-line paragraph.
Sentences that aren’t sentences.
I love an italicized moment, just as I love when a writer places the “he said” in the perfect spot.
“The long dash,” he said, “rules.”
And, again, long dashes are—unlike commas—extremely hard to overuse, because they leap from the page like a hairy birth mark off a model’s cheek. If I write—oh—this sentence, I’m not going to—in any circumstance—immediately return to the long dash. I’m certainly—not ever—going to do it three times in a row. Because it looks like shit. But we’ll shove 800 commas in a tight spot, because … I dunno.
Because we always have.
There are rules about commas and long dashes.
Plenty of rules.
For example, in 2016 someone named Chris Lee wrote a piece for Quick and Dirty Tips headlined, WHEN TO USE—AND NOT USE—AN EM-DASH: DASHES ARE TEMPTING. WE’LL HELP YOU RESIST. And the article includes tons of stuff like this: “It’s also important that when you set off a phrase using em-dashes that you used one em-dash immediately after the noun the phrase is describing and one immediately after the phrase. Don’t replace the second em-dash (as some tend to) with a comma or semicolon.” Last year, Pro Writing Aid’s Krystal N. Craiker offered up, EM DASH: WHAT IS IT AND HOW TO USE IT?7 (“Parentheses come across as being formal because they are most often used in academic and technical writing, so they may not match the voice of your piece. When parentheses are used to offset thoughts within a sentence, em dashes can take their place to make your writing less formal.”) There is also this ditty, from Purdue University, titled, EXTENDED RULES FOR USING COMMAS. (“However, don't put a comma after the main clause when a dependent (subordinate) clause follows it (except for cases of extreme contrast.”).
And while I have no animosity toward any of the writers or even their philosophies, I just think, eh, it’s all sorta garbage. A rulebook for the sake of a rulebook. When I told Christopher John Farley I was opining on long dashes v. commas, he sent me an e.e. cummings poem from 1950, titled, “I thank you God for most this amazing.”
Here it is:
The piece was initially published in something called “Xiape,” and while I’m far from a poetry expert, it’s pretty remarkable work. Yet what jumps off the page for me isn’t what caught the eye of Art & Theology’s Victoria Emily Jones, who in this 2016 article broke down “I thank you God for most this amazing” by marking primarily over … the word choices.
And … nah.
I mean, screw the words. You’ve got semi-colons, you’ve got parentheses, you’ve got long dashes, you’ve got commas. All tossed into a blender and then tossed out. And regardless, the sentiment of cummings’ work shines through the oddball mangling of conventional linguistic devices. The point—to me, at least—is an important one: In this game, what’s key isn’t following Rule A or Guidline 73. No—it’s whether a writer is getting across what they aspire to get across. “I am a stickler for not being a stickler on punctuation,” says David Maraniss. “All writers are entitled to their own style. Some love commas. Some love long dashes. Some love semicolons. I've used them all depending on the rhythm and flow that seems best for the material.”
Maybe a better way to explain this is to show you something Wright Thompson texted yesterday, as I pursued the meaning of this substack.
Without adding a word, he sent me this passage from the 1997 James Salter memoir, “Burning the Days” …
You be the judge.
One more point against commas.
I’ve known Doug Glanville for a good while. First, because he was a Major League outfielder when I was covering baseball for SI. Second, because he and I are two of the world’s biggest Hall & Oates fans. And third, because we’re both writers.
So when I reached out to Doug to ask his thoughts on comma v. long dash, I figured I’d get a quick take with a breakdown of his preference.
But I received much more—a link.8
Back in 2020, Doug wrote a piece for Andscape headlined THE ‘COMMA EFFECT’ ON BIAS AND BLACK LIVES. And it’s (predictably) fantastic.
Writes Doug …
[The comma] shapes the nuance of bias in America. A person is described and we look at the qualifiers that follow the comma: The victim of vigilante justice, who smoked weed in junior high. The man who shot up a movie theater, but was an altar boy at his church.
That comma wields great power. It can humanize, it can demonize, and although it takes a short breath to bring it to life, it can make a life lost seem inevitable or, most cruelly, a necessity. It is justice working in hindsight, hinting to us in code whether that grave outcome is deserved or if we should be sympathetic. Yet what comes after that comma often drips with bias in explaining what happened or what should happen.
That grammatical pause helps explain how racism can grow, even thrive, generations after slavery ended. It is the jump ball where the referee throws the ball slightly to one side, sometimes intentionally. It is the fastball on the edge of the strike zone where the right call is blurred so completely that bias is all that is left to decide whether it is a ball or strike.
But in this game of race in America, the stakes are truly life and death. The rules state that three strikes and you are out, but power is the true determinant of how those rules are enforced. And power is selective. Some get more than three strikes, others strike out before they even get up to the plate. And maybe worst of all, some get up to bat and every pitch is called a strike no matter where it crosses the zone.
Doug goes on to offer a series of examples how the comma is the Donald Trump (shitty, harmful) of punctuation. Or, to be more specific (and less political), how the comma is often used to add damaging qualifiers to an identity. For example, in being labeled “Doug Glanville, Ivy League engineering graduate,” Doug writes: “I was already suspicious of these labels. They can stoke elitism. They were still only a veneer when it came to color, even if someone holding the cards decided certain achievements made me a better person, that I was one of the ‘good’ ones. But assessing the character of anyone, without that first impression in which race and all of the biases that come with it is front and center, is a tall order. An Ivy League degree doesn’t help us know the core of a person. But in the American game, checking certain boxes is sold as a grant of immunity or equal access, pushing the content of our character or at least the accouterments of achievement to the front of the discussion so that no racial identity comma would be needed.”
And while Doug’s piece was far more serious than long dash v. comma, there’s actually a valuable connection. We, as journalists, do break out commas to subtly identify and classify and demean. We use them for myriad shit purposes, and if we’re not careful commas will take over and spread across this land like kudzu vines and Swifties and red MAGA caps and Diet Dr. Pepper.
So say no to the comma.
Say yes to the long dash.
Or, really, just write your ass off—and do what feels right.
The Quaz Five with … Cheryl Rosenberg
Cheryl Rosenberg is a former sports writer who worked for—among other places—the Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, Sports Illustrated and the Orange County Register. She’s one of the good peeps who did this job extremely well …
1. Cheryl, you and I were both baseball writers—and then, one day, (poof) you were done. Why did you leave the biz?: I left the biz because being a baseball writer is not compatible with the life I wanted to live, which included kids. I stopped covering ball when I was about six months pregnant with my first. I went to features, then went to part-time. When I was seven months pregnant with my second they eliminated my position. So I was lucky enough to stay home with my kids (my third child arrived in 2009).
2. Is it hard to identify as a sports writer for so many years, then shed the ID? Was there an adjustment?: There was definitely an adjustment. If I wasn’t a sportswriter, who was I, kind of existential crisis. I missed the people. Baseball writers—and columnists—are some of the smartest, funniest people I’ve ever met. Going to different cities. Being around the players. I remember one time I was telling a player something and being mortified when I got teary. Poor guy was just trying to eat his waffles. But he was awesome and kind. When the Marlins won the ‘97 World Series I was on the field and crossed paths with bench coach Rich Donnelly, who gave me a big hug, and even though it technically isn’t professional to hug people you cover he’d lost his daughter to cancer and it was simply a human moment. I think I’m off-topic here. The last game I covered was in 2003 and yet, when I watch a playoff and World Series game, I still think about the poor writers on deadline.
3. Your Facebook profile photo is you with Mike Scioscia. So, hey—what was he like to cover?: I liked covering Mike Scioscia. He was accommodating to reporters and never made you feel stupid. He was respectful of women writers which is a big deal. He was even-keeled and I don’t remember him yelling at writers—unlike his predecessor. He truly loves the game of baseball and I learned a lot from him. I brought my kids out to spring training and said Hi to him from the stands. He had us come down on the field to talk to him and take pictures. My kids have met Mike Trout a few times which was so cool for them and gave me a little Mom clout. I have only positive memories of Mike.
4. You were a psych major at UConn. Not a ton of psych majors who became journalists. Did studying psych actually help you as a writer?: I was a psych major looking for a co-op position for my senior year. I interviewed for some HR jobs but didn’t get them so it came down to being a tech writer for IBM in Poughkeepsie, or working in the sports department of the Boston Globe. I loved sports, was a good writer and my sister lived there at the time. That’s how I got my start. I definitely used my psych background, especially for more in-depth interviews. I think it helped me see a story behind the story, and to figure out what made a player tick.
5. What's the story of the biggest asshole you covered as a scribe?: What’s funny is I’ve had umpires ask me about Gary Sheffield—if he’s super-difficult or scary or whatever, and he was actually great. Bobby Bonilla could be prickly but not bad. Kevin Brown would stare writers down and do the “next question” thing but he could also be fine. I didn’t have issues with the Angels. Troy Glaus could be stand-offish but I think he was just self-protective. I guess I was lucky. I mean, some players on others teams were jerks to me. I told Mo Vaughn that I had to go talk to Barry Bonds and he said he’d talk to him first. So when I go over to interview Barry he answered my questions with only one inappropriate comment. I think I could tell you more of who were awesome to cover than who were assholes (although Gregg Jefferies from the Phillies was an asshole to me behind my back when I was, ironically, interviewing Curt Schilling).
Bonus (rank in order--favorite to least): Garret Anderson, Milli Vanilli, iced mochas, Dana Point, Heavy D and the Boyz, Vernon, Conn., Ted Lasso, "The Little Drummer Boy": Ted Lasso, Dana Point, Vernon, Conn., Garret Anderson, iced mochas, Heavy D and the Boyz, Milli Vanilli, "The Little Drummer Boy."
Ask Jeff Pearlman a fucking question(s)
From Mel: I wanted to know what was the farthest a book caused you to travel to meet with or potentially seek out a source?: Interesting question with a less-than-interesting reply. I have yet to leave the United States to report on a book, therefore there are no remarkable tales of 20-hour flights and chopper hook-ups and diving into the frigid ocean to grip a drifting life boat containing the lost diaries of Jay Canizaro.
That said, as we speak I’m in Atlanta for Tupac reporting. I got here after driving eight hours from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. So that’s something.
Really, what I love about this job are the treks, and small towns, and hole-in-the-wall cafes, and the meandering chatter with the waitress working the overnight shift. You don’t have to travel far to find gold like that.
A random old article worth revisiting …
When I was a teenager in Mahopac, N.Y., my closest friend introduced me to hip-hop via Public Enemty’s debut album. We were two kids (one Black, one Jewish) living in a 99-percent white, 100-percent sheltered town, and the music blew my dome.
So, in honor of PE, here’s a New York Times review, via Jon Pareles, from July 3, 1987 …
The Madness of Tyler Kepner’s Grid …
So unless you’ve been living beneath a pebble beneath a rock beneath a big hunk of cheese, you’re aware of Immaculate Grid, the daily game that’s drawn thousands of nerdy sports fans (guilty!) to its ranks. And while the NBA grid, NFL grid, NHL grid and WNBA grid are all fun, this game is at its best when it comes to baseball—where the names are endless and the transactions ceaseless.
Over the past few weeks I’ve often discussed the grid with Tyler Kepner, the Athletic baseball writer. And now, for kicks, every week I’m gonna feature one of Tyler’s bonkers grid results. He’s the ultimate baseball geek (I say this with great affection), and his outputs blow my mind.
• Bucky Walters is buried in Ambler, PA, basically where I grew up. He’s one of a couple of 40s MVPs (with Bob Elliott) who are not very well remembered and always get good scores in this game.
• Mike Piazza mentioned Lemmie Miller in his autobiography. I guess he gave him some advice or words of wisdom when Piazza was a Dodger bat boy in 1984.
• Les Straker started two World Series games for the ‘87 Twins.
• Brian Holton had a career year for the champion Dodgers in ‘88. I have World Series signature pennants all over my office, so Straker and Holton come to mind easily.
This week’s college writer you should follow on Xitter …
Hana Pavelko, columnist, The Rocky Mountain Collegian
Pavelko attends Colorado State, and her latest piece—SERIOUSLY: CAMPUS SAFETY IN QUESTION AS SQUIRRELS TAKE OVER—is money satire.
Writes Pavelko …
One can follow Pavelko on Xitter here.
Journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: So Scoop Jackson and I both used to write for Slam Magazine, and I always found the dude savvy, smart, keenly aware of basketball’s inner workings. So it’s cool to see Scoop is the co-author of George Gervin’s new autobiography, “Ice: Why I was Born to Score.” And for you kiddies out there, The Ice Man was just … elite.
Musing 2: If you have yet to listen to Roseanne Barr’s hype talk at the Trump rally earlier this week, well, you’re missing something special. With all due respect to a fairly impressive 1980s comedic career, Barr is living on another planet. And they’re lacking oxygen up there.
Musing 3: So The Tennessean/Gannett has hired a journalist named Bryan West to be it’s Taylor Swift reporter. Yes, there’s a Taylor Swift reporter. And, to be honest, I’m not opposed to the idea. I think back to ESPN having the late Pedro Gomez cover Barry Bonds, and … I dunno. Sometimes folks occupy universes that must be chronicled. That said, upon being hired West offered this as an introductory statement: “I would say this position’s no different than being a sports journalist who’s a fan of the home team. I just came from Phoenix, and all of the anchors there were wearing Diamondbacks gear; they want the Diamondbacks to win. I’m just a fan of Taylor and I have followed her her whole career, but I also have that journalistic background: going to Northwestern, winning awards, working in newsrooms across the nation. I think that’s the fun of this job is that, yeah, you can talk Easter eggs, but it really is more of the seriousness, like the impact that she has on society and business and music.”
And, fuck. It hurts my head. West has now let us know from jump that this isn’t a serious endeavor. That he’s a fan, no different than the TV goobers rooting for home teams (a weird self own). Truth be told, there’s actually a lot to write about Swift—financial implications, life journey, cultural meaning, impact. Judging West by his words, I’m skeptical we’ll get any of the goods.
Musing 4: Jill Stein is running for president yet again. And if you care—here’s her announcement. And what irks me (well, one of the things that irks me) is the ego of it all. The sheer, enormous, untouchable ego that it takes to run for president knowing: A. You have literally zero chance of winning; B. If you take votes away from Joe Biden, Hitler Lite wins. I’m irked.
Musing 5: Really cool piece from The Ringer’s Logan Murdock on Chris Paul’s early impact on the Golden State Warriors. Money quote: “Last year was horseshit,” Draymond Green told reporters last week. “It was hard to come to work, not fun. And so this year, you see the joy on guys’ face when they come in the building. You got guys staying over two or three hours after just sitting around talking, getting here two and three hours early just to be here. You start to see that, and you’re like, ‘OK, this is a group that likes being together.’”
Musing 6: So I’m writing this on Thursday night from my hotel in Atlanta. I’m here for Tupac research. And I actually had a crazy-ass travel week: Took the red eye from LAX to Atlanta on Monday night. Landed in Atlanta at 5 am Tuesday. Rented a car and drove six hours to Bay Saint Louis, Miss., where I interviewed an old Tupac friend. Slept in Mississippi, drove the six hours back to Atlanta for more interviews. And in two days I’m driving 10 hours to Miami to hear Jada Pinkett Smith speak at a book festival. It’s exhausting—and I love it.
Musing 7: Some of y’all might know I started my career in Tennessee. I loved Nashville, loved the state. But, man—it’s gotten bad. In case you missed this, journalists Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa recently came to Memphis’ Whitehaven High School to speak about their new book, “His Name Is George Floyd.” Yet students were not permitted to read excerpts or take copies home. This piece, via Laura Testino of Chalkbeat, breaks it down.
Musing 8: New Two Writers Slinging Yang stars the fabulous Jean-Jacques Taylor, author of "Coach Prime: Deion Sanders and the Making of Men."
Quote of the week …
See what I dod there?
See what I did there?
See what I did there?
See what I did there?
See what I did there?
Not Moneyball Michael Lewis.
Strangely, in a piece concerning punctuation the question mark in the headline does not belong.
See what I did there?