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Dash it all!

March 5, 2015

When you mark as many essays as I do, you often perceive trends in usage or misusage: particular idioms or errors that suddenly everyone seems to be using, as if they’ve been floating around in the air like microbes and infected everyone. The latest one I’ve noticed is the tendency to use a dash, but not put a space on either side of it, so that it is indistinguishable from a hyphen. So I might, for instance, come across something like this: “Pearce’s novel Tom’s Midnight Garden-published in 1958-uses the device of a temporarily-orphaned protagonist.” I’ve rarely had to correct this error until this year, but all at once it’s everywhere. I wonder why?

Incidentally, did you know there are two kinds of dash, the en-dash and em-dash? The en-dash is shorter and is used to indicate ‘to’ in dates or sequences: ‘1939-1945’ and so on. (On this particular word-processing programme it’s the same as a hyphen but should be a little longer.)

The em-dash is longer again, and is used to indicate either a change in thought while speaking, or a sudden breaking off: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to welcome you to – Susan, what the hell are you doing?” It’s also used, in pairs, to insert a thought or idea into a sentence, like slightly abrupt parentheses: “I said nothing – my usual tactic when I can’t think what to say – and waited for her to go on.” (That would be the usage intended in the Tom’s Midnight Garden example, above.)

In fact, according to Keith Houston, in his delightful book Shady Characters – all about neglected or marginal punctuation marks – there’s a difference between American and British practice in this last usage. Americans use a pair of em-dashes with no space either side, while British people use en-dashes with a space either side. But I can’t illustrate that here as Open Office only does em-dashes and hyphens.

One further use of the dash, which is becoming more frequent and which I use myself (especially in e-mails) is to herald an afterthought or follow-on or supplementary bit of information or explanation: “I won’t be able to get there tonight – the trains stop running at 7.30.”

That’s all I have time for – must dash.

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One Comment
  1. Most interesting. The American school definitely uses the em-dash as a less-intrusive parenthesis, something that has vexed me from the moment I first laid eyes upon it. I love my parentheses (they are the classy thing to do after all) and seeing them relegated to an ‘old practice’ is somewhat disheartening to me. Perhaps I ought to get with the times; yet again (who would question it beyond this) isn’t it all a bit overrated? We use what we use; how we use it, after all, is just a matter of opinion.

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