The work of one world-renowned German philosopher from the 1800s uses em dashes in unusual and innovative ways, challenging the rules of punctuation over a hundred years later.

Many agree that “punctuation is central to style” (Béland 2021, 148). Within the editing sphere, a careful balancing act of prescriptivism and descriptivism is at play when it comes to punctuation. Style guides dictate some standards for written language, but we must leave room for the individual expression of the author to show through. How can editors strike this balance in the realm of punctuation, where it’s more a matter of marks than words?

If you’ve heard the phrase “He who has why to live can bear almost any how,” then you’re familiar with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, a renowned German philosopher who helped spearhead the emergence of existentialism in the 1800s. Nietzsche challenges values across the board—even down to his stylistic and innovative use of the em dash.

“We have grown out of the symbolism of lines and figures, just as we have weaned ourselves from the sound-effects of rhetoric.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1910


Intrigued by a study that explored the stylistic and moral function of the semicolon, researcher Martine Béland set out to conduct her own evaluation on the use of the em dash, a punctuation mark that signals a break in a sentence. In her own study, “Style and Synesthesia: Nietzsche’s Philosophical Use of the Em-Dash,” Béland focused on the most-read writings of Nietzsche, a philosopher who editorial discourse agrees was a true “master of style” (Béland 2021, 147).

Taking the writings of Nietzsche that were published or prepared for publication between the years 1882 and 1888, Béland tallies the frequency and presence of the em dash in each year of the writer’s works, noting the function of each use. Béland identifies six traditional em dash functions—“as image (symbol), silence, voice, fermata, rhythm, and synaesthesia”—to illustrate ways in which Nietzsche uses it innovatively (Béland 2021, 156). For example, Nietzsche concluded a foreword to Human, All Too Human I, §8, with the sentence, “In certain cases one remains a philosopher only by keeping—silent.” The pronounced horizontality of the em dash naturally calls attention to itself within the vertically aligned writing system, and the function here suggesting silence lends to even more semantic innovation.

Béland then expands on punctuation theory, discussing the idea that the em dash is less rigidly fixed in its prescribed usage, and cites examples of Nietzsche using it to invoke a sensory experience for his audience through visual, auditory, and rhythmic means (Béland 2021, 149).

Béland’s research aims to make a case for the crucial nature of close reading and true translation of “all semantic-rich punctuation signs” throughout Nietzsche’s works, arguing that “we must see, feel, and interpret the dashes where Nietzsche intended them to be” (Béland 2021, 160).


To the editor of the 21st Century, Nietzsche’s utilization of the em dash might come across as brash, spontaneous, or arbitrary. But Nietzsche seems to have approached his every mark with meticulous attention to detail. Béland reflects that “Nietzsche’s dashes certainly function as a Socratic way of leaving questions unanswered, suspending judgment, and, perhaps, frustrating the reader but also thereby inviting the reader…, to tread her or his own interpretative path” (Béland 2021, 157).

Concerning the em dash itself, Nietzsche laments in Human, All Too Human I, §218, that “we have grown out of the symbolism of lines and figures, just as we have weaned ourselves from the sound-effects of rhetoric.” Today’s editors should not be too quick in cutting out the em dash from a written work. Nietzsche’s work and Béland’s study demonstrate how—through its unique functions—the em dash offers a visual semanticism that alternative marks might inadvertently lose.

To discover more about what sets Nietzsche’s dashes apart, read the full chapter:

Martine Béland. 2021. “Style and Synesthesia: Nietzsche’s Philosophical Use of the Em-Dash.” In Nietzsche on Making Sense of Nietzsche, 147–163. Reims, France: ÉPURE.

—Hannah Ackerman, Editing Research


Find more research

Read the study on stylistic and moral usage of the semicolon that inspired Béland’s research: Pierrot, Anne H. 2012. “Punctuation, Edition, Interpretation: The Example of the Semicolon in Bouvard and Pécuchet.” Flaubert: Revue critique et génétique 8.