Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Super Comma—a Dashcussion, or Welcome to Dashtopia, Population—Two Hyphens

Everyone loves the dash; they just might not know it yet.

Many young writers are either unaware or intimidated by the majesty of the dash. Here at the PSU Writing Center, the writing center of the Worker, we empathize. We say, don't lose heart! The dash can give a writer some added flexibility and freedom in pretty much any type of writing.

Believe it or not, punctuation is not as concrete as you might think! The rules for punctuation have not come down to us from the firmament. Grammarians, or more appropriately pedants, are by their very definition hairsplitters. Above all else they love to disagree with one another. Here at the PSU Writing Center, we believe it's always important to put in perspective the machinations of the ruling class. Since the dash is one of the more elegant and useful punctuation marks, it has become a lightning rod for controversy. Just about every website and style manual differs on just how to use the dash. Trying not to put too fine a point on it (!), we've decided to take the moderate, least narcissistic stance.

Below you'll find a compilation of the rules most of the experts agree on.

First the basics:

1.) The dash is always two hyphens (--).
2.) Never put a space before or after the dash.

Already you're wondering why the dash is sometimes referred to as the super-comma (sorry semicolon). More often than not, the dash can do everything the comma can do--only better. Let's see why.

1. Frequently, the dash is used to add emphasis. Can the comma do that? Yes, but nowhere near as powerfully as the dash can. The dash--due to its uncompromising distancing effect--can set a series of words or items apart from the rest of a sentence.

2. Just think--it can add a pause or mark an abrupt change in a sentence.

3. As alluded to earlier, the dash can also contain a series within a phrase. While experts disagree which punctuation mark is best to use at any given moment--that is, whether to use a comma, semicolon or sometimes a pair of parentheses--we think the dash can usually perform this function effortlessly.

4. Often ignored, but never forgotten, the dash is used in attribution.

"A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parenthesis."--E.B. White, of the Elements of Style and of spider-squashing fame

Finally, while you might have heard some talk about the em dash versus the en dash, we choose to ignore such debates, pointing out that such are the fading quibbles of philosophers drunk with power.

3 comments:

The PSU Writing Center said...

You should change the title to
"The Super Comma—a Dashcussion" or "Welcome to Dashtopia, Population—two hyphens" or
"How to Avoid Dashdaster—or Else!" or
"Throw the double-hyphen out with the Dashwater" or
"You cooked; I'll do the Dashes" or
"Dashitall to Hell!"

WEndy said...

I have noticed in some literary journals of ill repute or magazines as tasteless as "Found" the use of a smaller dash --more hushed if you will --that incorporates a space after the dash. It's a sort of sexy alternative to our mom & pops no-space dash, but I encourage anyone risky enough for a little syntactical subtlety to give it a whirl.

Rachel said...

The "em dash" vs. "en dash" debate isn't limited solely to philosophers! Talk to any book editor or designer and they'll be able to tell you the difference. What you're talking about in this post (--) is an alternative way of writing an em dash, which is the longest dash available. The en dash, which is shorter than an em dash but longer than a hyphen, is used for indicating ranges of numbers: 1960–70, or 2–5. For lots more about dashes and their usage, see the "Chicago Manual of Style."