I've found questions asking about an em dash in quoted speech, and punctuation rules for em dashes in quotes, but this question is quite different.

The example I saw comes from a tweet, reproduced here for convenience:

"For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior—not a divine social justice warrior, not a liberation theologian, not a critical race theorist, not an ecumenical pluralist, not an interfaith universalist—a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." — Luke 2:11 (NASB)

One reply tweet argued that that is not what that scripture says, obviously referring to the text between the first two em dashes. My question is, would this be a valid usage of em dashes, namely to signify an interjection within the quote, that is, text which is not part of the quote itself?

Edit: It has been pointed out that the use of square brackets is sometimes used in quotes to modify the quote for contextual clarity. See here for example. Could the em dashes in the example above be replaced with square brackets to achieve the desired effect? Maybe. But this deosn't answer the question of whether em dashes can be used correctly to perform this parenthetical/interjection function.

  • 1
    There is a larger debate as to whether the words inside the quotation marks are sacrosanct. If you think that they are, then the em dashes won't work as an interjection.
    – rajah9
    Dec 25, 2019 at 12:14
  • Hello, Monica. The use of em dashes to set off parentheticals is of long standing; there's even a question on ELU comparing the best choice between commas, dashes, brackets or even zero punctuation (none of the above!) for offsetting various examples of parentheticals ('interjections as you're labelling them). // The real issue is that alterations / additions / omissions within any quote must be indicated as being non-original. The usual and accepted way to show a non-original comment etc is to set it off with square brackets. Dec 25, 2019 at 12:18
  • @rajah9 Any example debates on SE you can link me to? Or perhaps you would be kind enough to elaborate a little and write this as an answer?
    – Earlien
    Dec 25, 2019 at 12:18
  • @EdwinAshworth Thanks. I did read somewhere that square brackets are sometimes use for this purpose, but it seems to be used in British English only. Is it actually more universal? Any grammar guides that state this?
    – Earlien
    Dec 25, 2019 at 12:20
  • Does this answer your question? What is the proper use of [square brackets] in quotes? Dec 25, 2019 at 12:21

1 Answer 1


The words that are inside the quotation marks should be a verbatim reproduction of what was said. To put it another way, what's inside the quote marks is sacrosanct. One could say doubly so for Holy Writ.

There are some very limited interpolations allowed when translating from a foreign language.

Quotations. Aside from adjusting quotation marks and ellipsis points to conform to house style (see ...), the editor must do nothing to material quoted by an author from another source. Interpolations (in square brackets) by the author and translations by the author of foreign language material, however, may be edited for style.

-- from Chicago Manual of Style, 13th Ed, section 2.96

The United States Supreme Court has ruled in a libel case against a journalist who had placed fabricated words inside quotation marks.

Following are excerpts from the Supreme Court's decision yesterday in Masson v. New Yorker, holding that fabricated quotations may be libelous if they materially alter the meaning of what the quoted person actually said.

-- from Court Opinion Holding That Libel Rests On 'Material Change' to Quotation, NYT, June 21, 1991, A12

The quotation marks put the reader in a frame of mind in which he or she is hearing the very words of the author (or in the OP's case, good translation of what St. Luke penned). When the reader encounters the em dash within the quote, he or she has no idea that the author did not make this editorial comment.

To directly answer your question: no, the em dashes don't constitute a valid interjection within the quotation. You can't mess with what's inside the quotation marks.

  • "When the reader encounters the em dash within the quote, he or she has no idea that the author did not make this editorial comment." Really, for this quote? How many people do you think would believe that Luke interpolated "interfaith universalist" here? Dec 25, 2019 at 13:16
  • @PeterShor, I was trying to give the OP a sense of the social contract that happens when the writer opens up the quotation marks, and how the interpolated comment broke that contract. And sadly, we live in this age of fake news and I-know-it's-true-because-I-read-it-on-the-internet. In this article (barna.com/research/…), Barna Research says, "Currently, only 5% of adults have a biblical worldview." Perhaps 95% of the people would not have the wherewithal to know that the interpolated comment was not penned by Luke.
    – rajah9
    Dec 25, 2019 at 21:34
  • @rajah9 So the gist of it is that whatever is inside the quotes is sacrosanct (should be verbatim and not be messed with). But there are a list of exceptions: 1) using square brackets for contextual clarity; 2) using square brackets for translations; 3) using elipses to suppress irrelevant portions of the quote; 4) "(sic)", usually in parenthesis, to denote errors in original text; and probably others... So while such edits should be minimal and obviously not frabrications, I do not see evidence for em dashes not being one more valid exception (for interjections).
    – Earlien
    Dec 26, 2019 at 0:22
  • Yes, your exceptions 1 and 2 address your question: don't extend or revise and what the author said within quotes. Exceptions 3 and 4 address a different aspect of what goes within quotes: don't leave out or correct what the author said without some indication. All of these are part of the social contract of using quotes. Violation of this social contract will at minimum annoy your reader and at most have a libel suit against you upheld by SCOTUS.
    – rajah9
    Dec 26, 2019 at 12:49
  • I agree that using em dashes within quotations for an interjection will mislead readers. However, out of curiosity, is the following of an acceptable interjection, and would it be more correct with or without em dashes? "For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior"—not a divine social justice warrior, not a liberation theologian, not a critical race theorist, not an ecumenical pluralist, not an interfaith universalist, but a Savior—"who is Christ the Lord." — Luke 2:11 (NASB)
    – Peter
    Jan 4, 2020 at 5:57

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