Ell-em-en-oh- Punctuation Panacea

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You may have noticed that I am fond of using dashes in my writing—and I am certainly not alone in this. Dashes seem to be ubiquitous these days. In a discussion of her new book Semicolon: the Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark on NPR in August, Cecelia Watson, faculty member in Bard College’s Language and Thinking program, opined “I’ve started thinking of the dash as the comfort food of punctuation …. If I don’t feel like trying too hard and want to relax, I’ll throw a dash in.” Many, like Watson, feel that the dash is overused and a sign of grammatical laziness. In her witty 2011 Slate article “The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash,” Noreen Malone notes that “Strunk and White…counsel against overusing the dash as well: “Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate” (Elements of Style, c1920; 4th edition 2019). Clearly, the matter is controversial: either you love ’em or you hate ’em—the em dash, I mean!

The word dash itself is versatile and multifaceted—Merriam Webster online lists no fewer than 15 definitions! Originating from the Middle English dasshen, probably from Middle French dachier meaning to impel forward, we use it as a verb—to dash down the hall, to dash someone’s hopes, or to dash off a letter—and as a noun, as in 50-yard dash, a dash of salt, or to cut a dash (i.e. a flashy display). It probably came to be used for a mark of punctuation because it results from a fast slash of ink when writing with a pen, longhand. 

The dash is a form of punctuation that is longer than the hyphen and much longer than the en dash (more on this later). Printers dubbed it the “em dash” because it is approximately the width of a capital letter M in the typeface being used. As Strunk and White’s guide to good writing explains, “A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a ​comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than ​parentheses,” making it, according to the Punctuation Guide online, “the most versatile punctuation mark.” They go on to explain that the dash is less formal than any of the punctuation marks it replaces (www.thepunctuationguide.com). The dash can also be used to replace a semicolon—as in the second sentence of this article—or even an ellipsis. “Leaves are falling…winter is on its way” could just as easily have used a dash instead of three dots. 

The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook points out that the dash is used to signal an abrupt change or emphatic pause in a thought or sentence—as in Emily Dickenson’s quite deliberate use in her poems. While the comma says “breathe,” the dash says “wait!” It represents a longer, deeper pause or separation in the flow of thought. It is also allows the writer to vary his/her punctuation. My sentence above about the etymology of the word dash would have had too many commas if I hadn’t been able to alternate commas and dashes. In other words, the dash is universally useful, and helps to establish an informal tone. Some stylebooks (such as AP) surround the dash with spaces, while others, such as the Chicago Manual of Style and this newspaper, present it “tight,” with no space between it and the words it borders; this is purely a matter of style (see how that semicolon could have been a dash?). To type the em dash on the computer, use the keyboard combination Option+Shift+minus on a Mac, or Control+Alt+minus on a PC. I did not learn these handy shortcuts until I became a bona fide journalist!

The fact that the em dash is bound by few rules may account for its popularity. None of this “only use between independent clauses” or “use with which but not with that” for the adaptable dash! In my second paragraph above, I first use it in place of a colon. I could have said “the word dash is multifaceted: MW online lists 15 definitions.” My second use in that same paragraph replaces parentheses: “We use it as a verb (to dash down the hall etc.) and as a noun (as in 50-yard dash).” But the dash is not only stronger than parentheses, it also integrates the bracketed idea more fully into the sentence. Most often, I use the dash to replace commas, as a more emphatic way to set off a modifying clause: “Crozet’s older neighborhoods have many desirable features—such as porches and deep setbacks—that are worth preserving in newer construction.” The dash is stronger and more striking than commas would be here. 

In my opinion, calling dashes “lowly” and a “lazy” solution to punctuation is unfair. Dashes have a unique role of their own to play—often one that can’t be recreated using any other punctuation mark. For example, in “The Thanksgiving feast—turkey and all the trimmings—provides an ideal occasion for family and friends to gather,” commas would be confusing, and the more diminutive parentheses would make the sentence sound silly. Here the dash functions as kind of a colon in the middle of the sentence—but colons go only one way. Dashes are also ideal for setting off a series that contains multiple commas itself: “The pies—pumpkin, apple, pecan, and even mince—usually take center stage.” In this usage, they always come in pairs. The “abrupt change in thought” usage can be seen with, “Hot spiced cider adds to the festivities—did you remember to get whole nutmeg?” The dash can also, like a colon, precede a concluding clause: “We will give thanks for all the blessings of this life—food, family, friends, and the natural beauty that surrounds Crozet.” To me, the dash provides just the right balance between strength and weakness.

A mark in between the length of the hyphen and the em dash is the little-used en dash which, similarly, is named for being the width of a capital N. The en dash is mainly used when expressing a range of dates or numbers: “The event is scheduled from 6–9 pm” or “FDR’s presidency spanned from 1933–1945.” It is formed by the keyboard combination Option+minus on a Mac, or Control+minus on a PC computer. The short hyphen, on the other hand, is mainly used to join compound modifiers (that is, two or more words that express a single concept), as in “self-driving car” or “home-made cranberry sauce.” It is right there on the keyboard.

“When I revise writing,” Watson continued, “I see dashes and I think of them as opportunities to perhaps create something a little richer in the text than the dash is providing.” Wow, would she ever have a field day with one of my articles! While I admit to feeling somewhat chastised, I still believe the dash has an important role to play in its own right. And I think Emily Dickinson would agree with me.  

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