Cutting a Dash - Dash it All - or what you will

I apologize for the tabloid headlines. Given the content of this post these titles would have been as obvious in the avoidance. Indeed, if you can think of any more, please keep them to yourself.

I am indebted to a correspondent on KB who pointed out to me that I had not noticed, when reading for pleasure, that the British publishing industry was, with a few exceptions, using single quotes for direct speech, leading to some unpleasant excesses where speakers quote other speakers who were themselves citing the names of people and their possessions resulting a positive orgy of punctuation:

'But,' Mrs Green continued, ''twas if you remember that paragon Dr Blue (speaking of the politician Frank Simons) who declared: 'it is better to possess all our own meagre possessions than any one of Simons'!''.

This sort of silliness is scarcely resolved by the more sensible American convention, but is at least more readable:

"But," Mrs Green continued, "'twas if you remember that paragon Dr Blue (speaking of the politician Frank Simons) who declared: 'it is better to possess all our own meagre possessions than any one of Simons'!'"

Removing the trailing period might seem petty, for myself, I would add a space before ' 'twas' and another after the end of the quotation.

All this is by the bye, however. I came here not to praise double quotes, but to bury dashes.

Colloquially, I use as many dashes as the next man. In formal writing I use few, and I would advise any writer to use none. Dashes have come and gone with fashion. When I was at school I was taught to suppose that there was really no such thing; dashes were seen as a sort of quaint or eccentric excuse to avoid chusing between a comma and a semicolon. I was further taught that I might occasionally discover dashes used in place of brackets to indicate a parenthesis, but that this was unnecessary.

Once I became aware of just how much of my critical sense was switched off when reading for pleasure, I began to notice punctuation all the more. And I noticed a curious thing. Dashes have been with us a long time, and no meaningful consensus exists as to how to use them and how not to. Here's a little status report:

In printing, the following marks appear frequently:

-           The "hyphen-minus" of our modern computer keyboards
­           The "soft" or "breaking" hyphen
           The "hard" or "non-breaking" hyphen

          The "short" or "En" Dash
        The "long" or "Em" Dash

More rarely we encounter:

          The "Figure Dash"
        The "Horizontal Bar"
          The formal "minus sign"

───    The double em dash
──── The triple em dash (these last two are, in traditional printing, single blocks with no gaps; there is no such symbol in Unicode, though if you were really mad enough to want them you could construct them from three or more light horizontal boxes (Unicode 2500).)

In most computer type faces, the first three hyphens are indistinguishable (in Linotype the same character is used for all three). In some metal typefaces, the minus sign is longer and placed slightly higher than the hyphens (at half-t rather than half-o). I don't know if there is a difference between hard and soft hyphens prior to desktop publishing (DTP).

The en dash and em dash were originally the same length as the letters that they are named for. Today the convention is that the en dash is half the width of the em dash, but no further rule is applied.

In the most common typefaces, there is no difference in length or form between the figure and en dashes and the long minus sign.

IN our daily communication we make common and polyvalent use of the hyphen-minus, and no use of em and en dashes. In publishing and journalism, sub-editors frequently still replace hyphens used for parentheses with em dashes, and also replace the ubiquitous space-hyphen-space that I call the "light colon" with either space-em dash-space or an unspaced em dash. The en dash is seldom used, though when it is it is to great effect, in interrupted words.

Simon began: "but surely you must consid– "

"I consider nothing!" The Inspector declared, and then continued slowly, with gathering menace, "yet, I consider everything."

This dash indicates to the sub or the typesetter that the writer has not made an error. That is an important purpose of punctuation that since DTP is often forgotten.

I HAVE encountered in different editions of the same book, and even within the same edition, every conceivable variation in the use of these maligned and abused marks. I have looked in British and American editions, I have looked in style guides and arbitri elegantiae. CMS is exhaustive, dry and sensible, and neither describes nor explains common usage. Stick to it and you won't be wrong, and when consistent you'll be with the majority whenever they are consistent, which is not often. Indeed  in its own explanations, CMS frequently uses em dashes the way that Winston Churchill uses handwritten dashes (sometimes en dashes in British editions) but there is no clear indication as to why it chuses to use dashes instead of colons, semicolons or brackets in these cases.

The strongest wisdom on the subject (also found elsewhere) I here quote from paragraph 6.81 of CMS;

The en dash is sometimes used as a minus sign, but minus signs and en dashes are distinct characters … substituting any character for another may hinder searches in electronic publications.

Wise, though not strictly true. The world's most commonly used text search, Google, makes no distinction between any dashes by ignoring them entirely (except under some special conditions).

Dashes, along with ellipsis and "suspension points"—with which their usage overlaps—are a feature whose usage rules I generally try to derive from a combination of author preference and current convention. In fiction, I apply (weakly or strongly) the following general guidelines:

  • brackets are better than pairs of em dashes unless the author uses the latter frequently and consistently
  • colons and semicolons are better than single em or en dashes unless the author uses the latter frequently and consistently
  • where dashes are used in the above cases, for US or international publication, unspaced em dashes are strictly used. For UK publication, spaced en dashes can be preferred by some authors, and are better than spaced hyphens in this usage.
  • en dashes or hyphens can be used for cut-off words in the case of sudden interruptions. The en dash generally looks more elegant and has the additional advantage that it will convince the editor that the author has not made a mistake.
  • faltering or broken speech should be indicated either by ellipsis for inarticulate mumbling or missing words or by suspension points (a row of spaced dots) for longer pauses, however texts containing a great deal of dialogue may require more nuance, in which case a careful and consistent hierarchy may be needed. Playwrights often explain their punctuation quite careful as an aid to actors (or an annoyance to directors).

In editing non-fiction, I establish a formal protocol that distinguishes marks that convey a meaning (such as the minus sign) and marks whose purpose is to act as aids to clarity  (punctuation).

As for direct speech, I am a firm believer in double quotes, and I have a more than passing admiration for the American rule of putting them after all other punctuation at the end of a line—this usually results in a cleaner looking text.

:: edit 2012-05-15 ::

DWT put up a nice clear explanation of the proper usage of ellipsis here. Go take a look.

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