Damn the Dash

Gordon Bennet writes on Utne Reader about the overuse of the em-dash as an all too convenient punctuation mark, and condemns the neglect the simple pleasures of the semicolon. Is it neglect, or laziness, as he suggests? Or is the semicolon outdated and destined for oblivion?

And who knew there were more than one kind of dash? Not this English lit major! I’m embarrassed to admit that there are two, the em-dash and the en-dash, and I never knew. Obviously I’m not enough of a dedicated dash fan to pay close attention to the grammatical rules spelled out in The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. En-dash, em-dash, everywhere a dash-dash…

According to the Blue Book:

An en dash, roughly the width of an n, is a little longer than a hyphen. It is used for periods of time when you might otherwise use to.

An em dash, on the other hand, is roughly the width of an m. Use an em dash sparingly in formal writing. In informal writing, em dashes may replace commas, semicolons, colons, and parentheses to indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought.

Most authorities recommend using no spaces before or after en or em dashes, but I confess to freely violating that rule on visual grounds. To me it just looks better.  If you’re using MS Word, if you put a space before and after the dash, it automatically becomes an em dash.

My husband started his working career as a typesetter, back in the Dark Ages when type was set by hand, and he tells me an em is a unit of measure in typography that defines the proportion of the letter width and height with respect to the point size of the current font being used. It was originally established as the width of the capital letter “M”, and since it is the same for all fonts at a given point size, one em in a 12 point typeface is 12 points. Simple, right?

So do we use dashes too often? The’re only supposed to be used in place of commas or parenthesis:

  • instead of a colon before a list at the end of a sentenceI recommend three things to improve your writing – reading, writing, and rewriting.
  • On both sides of additional information in the middle of a sentence, in stead of using parentheses or commasSusan – who has never been late – missed her plane this morning.
  • or on both sides of added information when that information contains commas.Holly raced up the stairs and grabbed three socks – a red one, a black one, and a white one – before racing back the way she had come.

So there you have it – the down and dirty on dashes. So don’t be misusing the dash, and neglecting your colons and parentheses. And don’t even get me started on the differences between dashes and hyphens!

So are dashes overused? Here’s a challenge: Keep tabs on how often you use dashes. Are they really effective, or just a bad habit you’ve gotten into?

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2 comments

    • Sherree Geyer on March 24, 2011 at 4:45 pm
    • Reply

    Here, here on your blog about Damn the Dash. Should you add…and full steam ahead?:) Years ago, I had a client who said I peppered my prose with too many of them, which caused me to rethink how I use em dashes. I came up with two reasons, one of which you cite, which is to corral information otherwise set off by commas. Professional titles often fit the bill. John Doe — president of ABC Corporation, city, state, and chairman of the board of XYZ foundation, city, state — recently delivered a speach about whatever.

    The other reason is to draw attention to information. Jonas Salk — who discovered the cure for polio — was an immigrant.

    Generally speaking, I prefer the first reason.

    And, I agree. I like spaces around the em dashes. It provides a little breathing room.:)

    1. Sherree, this whole post started because I noticed I was getting really bad with the dashes.

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