Dash Away, All

Dashes and hyphens are so often considered together that when I got to the end of “Sturgis’s Law #10,” I knew something was missing. After all, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) devotes several pages to dashes, and so do many other style guides. Surely I should devote at least a few words to the subject?

But I’d already gone on too long (blog posts that top 1,000 words make me nervous), and besides, nowhere in Sturgis’s Laws are dashes even mentioned. (That may change in the future.)

Meanwhile — let’s talk about dashes.

In U.S. usage, dashes come in two sizes. The em dash ( — ) is so called because it’s generally the length of one m. The shorter en dash (which, surprise surprise, is the length of an n) is the one that gets mixed up with hyphens.

As my typographer friends point out, a dash is a dash. How it’s styled — em or en, with or without space before and after — is a typographical decision. In British English (BrE) the kind of dash that indicates a break or sets off parenthetical remarks (as in the previous sentence) is generally rendered by an en dash with a space on either side, like this: How it’s styled – em or en, with or without space before and after – is a typographical decision.

  • To create an em dash on a PC: Alt+0151 (use the number pad) or ALT+CTRL+minus key (the latter works in Word but not in WordPress). Using AutoCorrect, you can also tell Word to automatically convert two hyphens (which is how we indicated em dashes back in typewriter days) to an em dash. I don’t allow Word to AutoCorrect anything, but you may be more tolerant than I.
  • To create an en dash on a PC: ALT+0150 or CTRL+minus key (see above)
  • To create an em dash on a Mac: Option+Shift+minus
  • To create an en dash on a Mac: Option+minus

In this blog and in my own writing, I insert a space on either side of my em dashes. This is to avoid bad end-of-line breaks. Word processors may treat “styled—em” in the sample sentence as one word and keep it all on one line, which may lead to an unsightly gap in the line preceding. The shorter dash seems to be coming into its own in ebooks, and with good reason: ebooks can be read on devices with relatively narrow lines, and in a narrow line a full em dash can look huge.

Em dashes generally herald a break of some kind. In dialogue, they are commonly used to indicate in interruption: “But I was about to say—” Frankie began before Sal cut her off. (Dialogue that trails off is generally indicated by an ellipsis. For more about this see “Of Dots and Dashes.”)

In non-dialogue, they can signal a change of subject or an aside. When the aside occurs in the middle of a sentence, it becomes more or less a parenthetical and is set off by em dashes. Why not use parentheses in such cases? You can use parens in such cases. For me an aside set off by parens is more peripheral — expendable, even — than one set off by dashes.

Em dashes are big. They call attention to themselves. Flip through a book — on paper or on screen — and chances are your eye will be drawn to the em dashes. If a writer is overusing em dashes, it’s often the first thing I notice when skimming through a manuscript. So use them sparingly. Like just about everything else in writing, they lose their power when overused.

Emily Dickinson is noted for her extravagant use of dashes, but she could get away with it because (1) she was a poet, (2) her poetry was brilliant, and (3) she was writing in the 19th century, before the Chicago Manual of Style was invented. Long after she died, one of her editors got into big trouble for taming her dashes into commas. If you’re adding Dickinson’s collected poems to your library, make sure the edition you choose has the dashes.

En dashes are somewhat specialized, and different styles have different takes on when to use them. In the social sciences, for instance, an en dash is often used to indicate that a compound comprises two words of equal weight, e.g., “I’m a writer–editor.” Chicago does not recommend this, and neither do I. Here’s my reasoning: The difference in length between a – and a – is not huge. When you’re reading along, you may not notice it at all — unless of course you’re a copyeditor like me. If it is important to know that the two halves of a compound are of equal weight, I would not depend on an en dash alone to get that across. However, if you’re in a field that follows this style, you should too.

Here are the most common uses of en dashes, per Chicago:

  • To signify through in number ranges: pages 3–17; the years 1941–1945. The range can be open-ended: my dog Travvy (2008–).  Figures and tables in nonfiction books are often given numbers like 2-5 and 3-17. The hyphen denotes that this is NOT a range; the first number is generally that of the chapter and the second that of the particular figure or table. The distinction comes in handy in footnotes and endnotes, where page ranges run rampant and table and figure numbers are sometimes concealed among them. By the way, It’s a faux-pas to use the dash when the range is preceded by from: She lived in France from 1978 to 1982, not “from 1978–1982.”
  • To signify to in destinations, votes, or scores: the Boston–Washington train; my team won, 99–92; the vote was 5–4.
  • To form compounds when one element is itself an open compound: the post–World War II baby boom; the New York–Boston rivalry. This is to avoid reading the former as post-world and the latter as York-Boston. Editors sometimes differ on which open compounds have to stay open and which can be hyphenated when attached to prefix, suffix, or another word. Proper nouns generally stay open, but when the New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804 another style prevailed, and its official name is so styled to this very day. Chicago 16, section 6.80, recommends country music–influenced lyrics, but I see nothing wrong with country-music-influenced lyrics.

All clear now? Dash away, dash away, dash away, all. And I really should come up with a dashing Sturgis’s Law . . .


Sturgis’s Law #10

Some while back I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar. Here’s Sturgis’s Law #10:

“Consistent hyphenation” is an oxymoron.

According to Sturgis’s Law #5,  “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.”

Arbiters of style.

No, that 90 percent figure isn’t based on any survey, much less a scientific study or even systematic observation of my own practice. Good editors and writers are always looking things up. But commas and hyphens seem to provoke an anxiety that needs frequent reassurance even when we really do know our stuff.

Funny thing, I was blogging about commas only last week — and quoting Sturgis’s Law #5. So hyphens seem to be a logical next step.

And yes, it is OK to use “hyphens” and “logical” in the same sentence. If you understand the logic behind hyphenation, you won’t spin yourself into a tizzy whenever dictionaries and style guides disagree.

Which they do. A lot.

Hyphens can do many things, but the two biggies are joining and separating. Hyphens are so clever that they occasionally do both at the same time.

A hyphen can fuse two words capable of standing alone into a compound that incorporates both: I’m a writer-editor. The pond looks blue-green.

It can join a prefix or suffix to a root word: an anti-intellectual movement, a business-like attitude. In the former example, the hyphen is also separating the two vowels. Except in skiing and taxiing and maybe a few other words that I can’t think of at the moment, i‘s rarely occur side by side in English, so it looks pretty weird when they do.

Several common prefixes end in e — re- and pre- come immediately to mind — and when they run up against another vowel, misreadings can happen. I can’t look at reignite without initially seeing reign. Plenty of writers have no problem with reignite, but if an author prefers re-ignite, I have no problem with it.

In some cases the separation is crucial. Consider the difference between coop and co-op.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the style guide I use most often, has a long section on hyphenation. In the 16th edition, which has just been superseded by the 17th, it’s section 7.85. It is very, very useful. Plenty of hyphenation decisions can be, in effect, automated: Always use them in some cases (e.g., second-floor apartment, forty-one); never use them in others (e.g., grandmother, northeast).

In other cases, though, there’s plenty of gray area. CMS’s recommendations rely almost entirely on patterns: adjective + participle, gerund + noun, and so on. It suggests hyphenating most compounds when they occur before a noun — a well-rounded education — but leaving them open after a noun: Her education was well rounded.

What CMS and many copyeditors don’t acknowledge often enough is that the words themselves make a difference, and so does the intended audience. CMS does advise taking “readability” into consideration, but what’s readable and what isn’t depends a lot on context. Some noun + noun compounds are so familiar that inserting a hyphen when they appear before a noun looks like overkill. Yeah, “high school student” could be read to mean a school student on drugs, but when was the last time you saw it used that way?

On the other hand, “running shoe store” could conjure unintentionally hilarious images in enough readers’ minds that “running-shoe store” seems the better option.

CMS recommends that adjectives formed with half- be hyphenated before or after a noun but that nouns so formed be open. OK up to a point, but half sister strikes me as odd because all those half- relationships are words in their own right. Besides, if stepsister is one word, why should half sister be two? This is why “consistent hyphenation” is an oxymoron.

It’s also why I think writers and editors are well within their rights to impose some consistency and logic on hyphenation in a particular work, even if this involves deviating from the recommendations of dictionary or style guide. The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) lists policymaker as one word. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (MW) it isn’t listed, which means it’s two words. AHD has both policymaking and policy-makingCMS would probably suggest policymaker for the noun (by analogy with shipbuilder) and policy-making when it precedes a noun. But what if you’ve got people who make policy and people who make decisions in the same paragraph?

With certain prefixes, like pro- and anti-, separating the prefix from the root with a hyphen calls a little more attention to the root. Consider pro-choice and prochoiceanti-choice and antichoice. In this case I’m all for the hyphen, but when an author hyphenates something that I probably wouldn’t, there’s a distinct possibility that s/he’s seeing or hearing a distinction that I don’t.

Most non- words can be safely closed up, but with new or unfamiliar coinages, a hyphen can be helpful. A recent author used non-state actors several times. Fine with me. British English tends to hyphenate more non- words than its American counterpart: NGO is spelled out non-governmental organization, not nongovernmental organization. If a U.S. author wants to do likewise, fine with me.

I’m proud to call myself a HARPy — HARP stands for Hyphens Are a Reader’s Pal. When I come across a hyphen that doesn’t follow the “rules” of the guiding dictionary or style guide, I ask, Is it useful? Does it get in the way? Is it consistent with the author’s other preferences? Sometimes I’ll consult CMS, MW, AHD, and the UK English section of the online Oxford Dictionaries. If it passes muster, I’ll enter the spelling in my style sheet so I’ll remember it if it comes up again, and so the proofreader will realize that this was a conscious choice, not a mistake.

Wield hyphens with confidence. They’re helpful little buggers, and nothing to be afraid of.


On Not Writing

Can anyone out there not relate to this? Here’s a bracing dose of “how to keep going.”

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Happy children! Loud happy children!

This is the blog post I didn’t write because it was a terrible idea. So why even start?

This is the blog post I didn’t write because the ceiling was leaking.

This is the post I didn’t write because I couldn’t figure out the coffeemaker and then I knocked it over.

This is the post I didn’t write because jet lag.

This is the post I didn’t write because the goddamn neighbor’s goddamn TV is so goddamn loud I can make out words through the wall.

This is the post I didn’t write because Facebook made me mad. And sad.

This is the post I didn’t write because I sat down and then the doorbell rang.

This is the post I didn’t write because I’d rather take a walk and self-care is important.

This is the post I didn’t write because don’t force it.


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Editing Workshop, 7: Commas

Extra commas.

I just copyedited a very good memoir that was seriously overburdened with commas. According to Sturgis’s Law #5,  “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.” I have written about commas (and hyphens!) before, but thanks to this job I’ve got plenty of examples of unnecessary and even misleading commas in my head, so this seems a good time to write about them again.

Rest assured that it will not be the last time, and if you’ve got any comma questions or comments, please do use the contact form at the end to send them in.

The examples follow the structure of the original, but I’ve changed the words because quoting without permission from an as-yet-unpublished book is ethically dubious. Not to mention — I don’t want anyone to think less of an excellent book because the uncopyedited manuscript had too many commas in it.

When she arrived at the concert hall early, she discovered that the rest of us were early, too.

There’s a zombie “rule” (a rule that no matter how often it’s refuted keeps coming back from the dead) floating around that you must have a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence. Not only is it not required, sometimes it actually gets in the way: your eye pauses briefly before it gets to the end of the sentence. If you want that pause, by all means stet the comma. If you don’t, take it out.

“Too” doesn’t often show up at the beginning of a sentence, but when it does, you will almost certainly want a comma after it. Same goes for “also.” They generally link the sentence to the one preceding. This is often OK in informal writing, but it can come across as rushed or sloppy when you’re trying to make a good impression.

The comma after “early” in the example is a good idea. When an introductory phrase or subordinate clause is short, you can often get away without the comma — “When she arrived I was on my second beer” — but if there’s any chance that the phrase or clause might slide into the main clause, consider using a comma.

Once he’d read the street signs, and consulted the map, he pulled away from the curb.

We’re looking at the comma after “signs.” I could make a case for it if the author wanted a bit of a break between the reading and the consulting. But I’m pretty sure he didn’t. When I’m editing, I note what the writer does habitually. This writer inserted a comma before the conjunction “and” so often that I wondered if maybe he thought it was a rule, like that comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.

A very strong convention — “rule,” if you will — is to use a comma before any conjunction that joins two independent clauses. This convention makes enough sense that the burden is on me or the writer to show that it’s not necessary, for instance when the two clauses are very short: “I got home from work and we sat down to dinner.”

I deleted the comma after “signs” but kept the one after “map,” which ends a rather long introductory subordinate clause.

After she entered the hall, so many people swarmed around her, as she moved toward the podium, that we couldn’t see her at all.

Notice the clause set off with commas in the middle of the main clause? Those commas make the clause almost parenthetical, meaning that you could omit it without losing anything. “. . . so many people swarmed around her that we couldn’t see her at all” does make perfect sense, but we no longer see the subject moving toward a podium. In other words, we’ve lost something. I deleted both commas.

When I’m copyediting, I want to improve the sentence as unobtrusively as possible. If this were my own sentence, I might revise with a heavier hand, perhaps “After she entered the hall and moved toward the podium . . .” Or maybe “. . . so many people swarmed around her that we couldn’t see her at all as she moved toward the podium”? Or maybe not. As is so often the case, there are several options, equally correct but somewhat different in nuance, emphasis, and/or cadence. Unless there’s a compelling reaason to do otherwise, I stick as close to the author’s version as I can.

As much planning as we did, to my way of thinking, we should have done more.

Here’s another thing to watch for when you come across a phrase or clause set off by commas in the middle of a sentence. The question here is about what half of the sentence “to my way of thinking” belongs with: “As much planning as we did to my way of thinking . . .” or “. . . to my way of thinking we should have done more.” Reading along, I skidded to a halt to sort this out. Based on both context and the sentence itself, I was pretty sure that the latter was intended, so I deleted the comma after “thinking” to avoid separating phrase from clause.

Mind you, if the whole sentence were “To my way of thinking, we should have done more,” that comma would have been unexceptional — not required, but not a problem either. In the middle of a complex sentence, however, it creates enough ambiguity to make a reader pause. In some cases, such commas or the lack thereof can even create serious confusion about the meaning of the sentence.

* * * * *

There’s plenty more to be said about commas, but I think this is enough for one post. Have you got a comma question, or a sentence that needs a second look, or one you successfully sorted out? Use this contact form to send it in, and I’ll work it into a future blog post — or reply privately if you prefer.