Tag Archives: Punctuation

The Em Dash, Not To Be Confused With The En Dash

The Em Dash 2Because self-publishing has grown in ease and popularity, more and more writers are producing their own work for public consumption. Hence, I see the need for more instruction in the use of grammar and capitalization and punctuation, particularly marks like the em dash that may not be well known.

This post, with some minor editorial changes, first appeared here in April 2010. It’s about time I dusted it off, so we can take another look at em dashes. But be prepared: it comes with a writing exercise at the end, for those who wish to undertake the practice.

And now, The Em Dash:

I’ve been accused (gently) of overusing em dashes, commonly referred to without the qualifying “em.” These punctuation marks [] differ in length and use from their lesser known, and shorter, cousins, the en dashes [–].

The thing about em dashes—they are incredibly versatile. They can do some of the jobs that commas do or ones parentheses do or even those that colons do. Maybe em dashes are the lazy writer’s answer to punctuation dilemmas: when in doubt, use em dashes. 😉 Well, it works for me!

Like anything else in writing (and in much of life), however, too much of a good thing becomes not such a good thing. In other words, em dashes in every other sentence may become distracting.

With that caution in mind, let’s look at specific uses of em dashes. First, they separate information that amplifies or explains from the rest of the sentence. Commas, parentheses, or a colon can do this too. Here are a few examples.

Example 1:

    The kingunable to sleepcalled for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.

Or

    The king (unable to sleep) called for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.

Or

    The king, unable to sleep, called for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.

Example 2:

    The basketball coach mapped out his plan of attacka plan he hoped would surprise the opponent.

Or

    The basketball coach mapped out his plan of attack: a plan he hoped would surprise the opponent.

A second use of the em dash is to separate a subject (or a series of subjects) from a pronoun that introduces the main clause.

    Lewis and Tolkienthey are the founding fathers of Christian fantasy.

As noted in an earlier post, “The Ellipsis or the Em Dash,” there’s a third common use—to indicate a sudden break in thought or speech.

    Clenching her fist, Barbara stomped after him. “No matter what you

    Before she could finish her threat, Jeff slammed the door.

One more important point: no sentence should contain more than two em dashes. If further amplification is required, then commas or parentheses should be used.

But what about the en dash, that shorter little mark so similar to a hyphen? The Chicago Manual of Style says its principle use is to connect numbers (and occasionally words). For example, if you give a span of time, say, between 19992004, the proper mark between the numbers is the en dash.

So here’s an exercise if you choose to do it: First, look back at this post and see how many em dashes I used, apart from the examples, then rewrite those sentences using either commas, parentheses, or a colon. Second, identify at least one sentence each in which I used parentheses or a colon and rewrite those using em dashes.

How do you think the change in punctuation affects the sentence?

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Em Dashes Can Keep Company


I’ve looked at the basics of the em dash, commonly referred to as the dash, in “Punctuation Pitfalls–The Em Dash and Its Cousin the En Dash” and “The Ellipsis or the Em-Dash.” But I realized there’s another aspect of this handy-dandy punctuation mark that I have yet to address: how does it work with accompanying marks? Or does it?

As in so much of English grammar, the answer to the last question is, it depends. There are times the em dash should not and will never be joined with another punctuation mark, but then there are the times, it must include a companion. So which is which?

The never instances are places where the em dash replaces a comma: in complex sentences. As a refresher, a complex sentence has two clauses, or groups of words containing a subject and verb: one independent, able to stand on its own as a sentence, and one dependent, not expressing a complete thought. To review where the comma belongs in a complex sentence, see “Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 5.”

In these complex sentences, a writer may chooses to substitute an em dash for the comma, in which case, the em dash is flying solo.

Then there are instances when it takes on passengers. Here are three:

  1. If the parenthetical information set off by em dashes is either a question or an exclamation, a question mark or an exclamation point may precede the em dash.
    Example:
    Most of the politicianswho says they care?–seem to ignore the wishes of voters.
  2. If an em dash is used to indicate a sudden break in dialogue, it precedes the closing quotation mark. If the sentence continues, requiring a comma, the em dash precedes the comma.
    Examples:
    “Get out of my way! Get out of my–“
    “I’ve had enough of your–,” she began, but her daughter burst into tears.
  3. If the sudden break belongs to the action rather than to the dialogue, em dashes are used after and before the quotation marks to separate the dialogue from the rest of the sentence.
    Example:
    “Someday you’ll be sorry,” — he poked his finger into my chest — “and don’t you forget it.”

There you have it–our em dash friend isn’t always a loner. Depending on the circumstance, he can consort with punctuation partners.

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Ellipses Are Punctuation Marks, Too

Somehow I seem to have bypassed the ellipsis when I covered punctuation in these writing tips, but let me assure you the ellipsis and its friendly plural relatives, the ellipses, are punctuation marks, too.

The two primary uses of the ellipsis are (1) to indicate words left out of quoted material and (2) faltering speech in dialogue.

Before we can discuss the uses, however, let’s be clear what this punctuation looks like. We’re talking about three little dots, sometimes created with space in between (the manner favored by The Chicago Manual of Style) and sometimes created by an ellipsis character with no space other than the ones separating it from the words of the sentence.

Let me illustrate. Here’s the opening paragraph from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” retold by Rohini Chowdhury:

    Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes. He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

To quote this material but leave some portion of it out, would look like this using The Chicago Manual of Style method:

    Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who . . . spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

Or, if using the ellipsis character, it would look like this:

    Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who … spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

It’s important to remember that in omitting a portion of quoted material, a writer must be certain to retain the author’s original intent. In other words I could not use the ellipsis to say something like this:

    “Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who . . . thought of nothing.”

On the other hand, the writer quoting the material has some flexibility with punctuation and capitalization. For instance, a writer can start the quoted material with a capital letter and without an ellipsis even though he isn’t starting at the same place the original author did:

    There lived an Emperor who loved new clothes.

At the same time, when ending quoted material in a different place than the author, a writer can use a period rather than an ellipsis, as long as he is not changing the intent of the original:

    He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day.

In addition, if the quote isn’t quite right, either structurally to fit into a sentence, or factually to provide the needed content, a writer can add pertinent material inside brackets, like this:

    [The Emperor] loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day.

But back to the ellipsis. If the portion of the quoted material that is omitted follows a complete sentence, the period is retained, but it is snug to the word, which differentiates it from the ellipsis:

    Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes…. He thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

The ellipsis can also show up in dialogue in faltering speech, not to be confused with interrupted speech.

Interrupted speech:
“I don’t care what you think,” Danny shouted, “you can’t take my –” His brother slammed the door and stomped down the steps.

Faltering speech:
“Let me see.” Jill tapped a finger to her chin. “I can’t remember if I’ve . . .” She shrugged. “What did you ask?”

Notice in the last example that the quotation mark comes directly after the last dot of the ellipsis, and would do so even if the ellipsis character is used.

Those are the basics. Now you can chop up those quotes for your blog posts with integrity. And your characters can stumble over their words or forget their lines as much as you desire. 😀

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Period. End Of Subject.

Of all the punctuation marks, periods are perhaps the most basic. Chances are we learned about periods back in primary school when we first began to string words together on paper to form sentences.

Not much has changed with the period since then, but there are a few tidbits that bear review and a few uses that occur only on occasion, so they might need clarification.

First, the basic function of the period is to end a statement or a command. However, in less formal writing and in fiction, incomplete sentences have become an accepted part of writing. These too end with a period. One popular (and annoying) (over)use along these lines is a string of single word “sentences,” each followed with a period.

    Example: Heat flushed her face. “I. Did. Not. Say. You. Could. Leave.

The forced stop which the period creates is actually an effective way to create clipped speech. However, like so many new creations, many rush to imitate and the sheer volume renders what had been fresh and innovative, tired and cliched.

I suggest writers moderate their use of this unique construction. Save it for the right moment when no other way can capture the irritation your character feels.

Questions sometimes arise concerning placement of periods. When used with quotation marks, Chicago Manual Of Style places them inside a closing quotation mark. Always. (OK, I just couldn’t resist — sorry. 😉 But while I was teasing with the single word construction, I am serious about the fact that the period always belongs inside the closing quotation mark.)

A similar question arises regarding periods and parentheses. The placement here is not as rigid. When a parenthetical expression enclosed in parentheses ends a sentence, the period belongs outside the closing parenthesis. If the parenthetical material is an entire sentence, however, and appears after another completed sentence, the period belongs with the parenthetical sentence and therefore goes inside the final parenthesis.

    Examples:

    * My brother is a lawyer (and he’s the best). [The parenthetical material appears as part of the existing sentence, so the period belongs to the sentence and goes at the end.]

    * He practices law in Los Angeles. (Eventually he hopes to join the district attorney’s office.) [The parenthetical material is a separate sentence, so the period belongs to the material inside the parentheses and is also placed there.]

The next most common use of the period is in abbreviations. Again using Chicago Manual Of Style, the rule is to omit the period for abbreviations all in capitals but to use a period after lower case abbreviations. By the way, should an abbreviation requiring a period end a sentence, you do not then add another period. The one does double duty.

    Examples:
    *etc.
    * vs.
    * a.m.
    * esp.
    However,
    * CEO
    * AARP
    * ACLU
    * NASA

When given names are abbreviated, a period always follows the capitalized letter.

    Examples:
    * C. S. Lewis
    * J. K. Rowling
    * J. R. R. Tolkien
    * G. K. Chersterton

As you might guess, there are numerous exceptions for specialty situations, so if in doubt, check a style manual or ask your nearest editor. 😀

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Italics And When Not To Use Them

Some writers, in particular, novelists, become “italics happy.” Once they’ve discovered the slanty writing, it’s as if they’ve struck it rich. More accurately, they have stumbled on fools gold. Using italics in fiction or non-fiction is much more specialized and a lot rarer — or should be — than many know.

Don’t get me wrong. Italics do have their purposes. Here are their major legitimate uses.

First, italicize a foreign word or phrase used in isolation. If an expression comes up frequently, only its first use needs to be italicized.

In my fantasy series, The Lore Of Efrathah, for instance, I use a number of “foreign” words (actually words of an imaginary language), and some are repeated throughout. Consequently, on their introduction, I put the words in italics, but thereafter they appear in regular roman type. Here’s an example from Book 1, Hunted, with a little extra so you can see in context what the word means:

Alán!” Eljosh cried. “Bring him alán!”

Those close to Mikkán moved back to make room for a light-haired council member rushing forward. From a pouch at his side, he yanked out a pinch of dried leaves, then grasped Mikkán’s forearm and crushed the leaves into a powder he sprinkled over the burn.

A second legitimate use of italics, more common in non-fiction, is to set off a word used as a word rather than as that which it means.

For example, someone may ask, “Do we capitalize president?”

In such an instance, the writer is referring to the word “president,” and not the person which such a word represents. The proper way to punctuate that sentence would be to italicize president, as I did here because I too was using the word as a word.

A similar use of italics exists for individual letters used as letters, with the exception of letters used for grades. Here’s an example:

    I often mistakenly type b when I mean to type p.

A fourth use of italics is for titles of “free standing” works such as books, magazines, movies, the name of a TV series, plays, and so forth. Consequently,

    I read an article in Time magazine entitled “Go For The Gold.”

Other titles that are set in italics are art works, formally titled art exhibitions, and photographs. Specific names of ships, planes, and trains (but not names of their makes, classes, or models) are also italicized.

One last legitimate use of italics in general writing (there are others in specialty publications such as scientific journals when writing about genes or genuses): Italics may be used sparingly for emphasis. From Chicago Manual Of Style:

Overused, italics quickly lose their force. Seldom should as much as a sentence be italicized for emphasis and never an entire passage (7.49, 15th edition).

Along this line, in non-fiction a key term may be italicized on its first occurrence to draw attention to itself. From that point on, it would be set in roman type.

Fiction writers may think I’ve left off one of the most significant uses of italics: when writing interior monologue. Not so. I haven’t left it off because interior monologue, or what Chicago terms “unspoken discourse” (which would include silent prayer) does not require italics. Instead, quotation marks are used, or no identifying punctuation at all.

Here’s another example from Hunted:

Jonathan crossed to the alcove. “I know you must be disappointed.”

Without looking up, Jim nodded. “Disappointed” was the G-rated version of what he was feeling, but could anyone blame him for a twinge of despair? He might never see his parents again, might not reconnect with his sister or teach his hero-worshiping nephews, Matt and Allen, his signature crossover dribble and stop-on-a-dime jump shot.

There you have it. Italics ought to be rare nuggets, not flashy baubles too common to do any good. Authors, use them sparingly.

– – – – –
If this article was helpful, you might also be interested in “Quotation Marks And Where They Belong.”

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Good Grammar Does Not Make Good Writing

I’ve been a little surprised to see that the writing-tip posts receiving the greatest number of hits here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework are those on punctuation. I suppose I should have expected this from my teaching experience, but it caught me off guard.

As I understand writing—and I’m sure I learned this during my own school days—it consists of two parts: what you say and how you say it.

Some people put all their focus on the first part. Content is king, never mind that no reader can possibly figure out what that content is supposed to be because the “how it’s told” completely muddles all communication.

On the other side are people who pay meticulous attention to every comma, every verb tense, every subjunctive, every non-split infinitive. The problem is, their “what I’m saying” is stilted and sleep-inducing. Good grammar is no guarantee of good writing.

Perhaps a better way of stating this point would be, Correct grammar is no guarantee of good writing.

Good grammar, as I see it, serves the content—the “how you say it” ought to facilitate the “what you say.”

Consequently, a formal term paper for school or a business proposal ought to be starched with all the correct grammar the writer can pour into the mix. However, a short story with lots of dialogue would be ruined if the same set of grammar rules were applied.

Too often beginning novelists don’t discern the difference and can’t adapt their grammar to the less formal requirements of fiction. Too many still believe their acceptance for publication hangs on the placement of every comma, not on how likable their protagonist is or how much tension is on every page.

Does good grammar matter? It absolutely does. Few writers know what grammar rules to dispense with in fiction if they first don’t know what those grammar rules are. But writers, whether working with fiction or non-fiction, should not neglect storytelling—that is, their content delivery.

Above all else, the content delivery should be interesting. A writer can be humorous, personal, relevant, anecdotal, logical, introspective, analytical, whatever—as long as the content is not boring.

“Boring” results from redundancy and repetition, from stating the obvious, from too many illustrations when a point is already clear. “Boring” results from stereotypical characters, predictable plot points, unimaginative settings.

Good grammar gives a writer a good start, but good writing depends on good content. We writers need to give sizable amount of attention to the “what we have to say” side of our work without neglecting the “how we say it” side.

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Em Dash and Its Cousin the En Dash

I’ve been accused (gently) of overusing em dashes, commonly referred to without the qualifying “em.” These punctuation marks [—] differ in length and use from their lesser known cousins, the en dashes [–].

The thing about em dashes—they are incredibly versatile. They can do some of the jobs that commas do or ones parentheses do or even those that colons do. Maybe em dashes are the lazy writer’s answer to punctuation dilemmas: when in doubt, use em dashes. 😉 Well, it works for me!

Like anything else in writing (and in much of life), however, too much of a good thing becomes not such a good thing. In other words, em dashes in every other sentence may become distracting.

With that caution in mind, let’s look at specific uses of em dashes. First, they separate information that amplifies or explains from the rest of the sentence. Commas, parentheses, or a colon can do this too. Here are a few examples.

    Example 1:
    The kingunable to sleepcalled for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.


    Or

    The king (unable to sleep) called for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.

    Or

    The king, unable to sleep, called for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.


    Example 2:
    The coach mapped out his plan of attacka plan he hoped would surprise the opponent.


    Or

    The coach mapped out his plan of attack: a plan he hoped would surprise the opponent.

A second use of the em dash is to separate a subject (or a series of subjects) from a pronoun that introduces the main clause.

    Lewis and Tolkienthose are the Founding Fathers of Christian fantasy.

As noted in an earlier post, “The Ellipsis or the Em Dash,” there’s one more common use—to indicate a sudden break in thought or speech.

    Clenching her fist, Barbara stomped after him. “No matter what you

    Jeff slammed the door before she could finish her threat.

One more important point: no sentence should contain more than two em dashes. If further amplification occurs, then commas or parentheses should be used.

But what about the en dash, that short little mark so similar to a hyphen? Chicago Manual of Style says the principle use is to connect numbers (and occasionally words). For example, if you give a span of time, say, between 19992004, the proper mark between the numbers is the en dash.

So here’s an exercise if you choose to do it: First, look back at this post and see how many em dashes I used, apart from the examples, then rewrite those sentences using either commas, parentheses, or a colon. Second, identify at least one sentence each in which I used parentheses or a colon and rewrite those using em dashes.

How do you think the change in punctuation affects the sentence?

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Colon

Again my primary source for the information I’ll share about the use of the colon [:] is the trusty and oh-so-reliable The Chicago Manual of Style.

Besides a few specialty uses (between chapter and verse numbers in Biblical references, after the greeting in a business letter, as part of a URL) the colon serves to introduce information that illustrates or amplifies. Such may be a single element or a series of elements.

Here’s an example from Lost Mission by Athol Dickson (Howard Fiction):

    “Tell me this as well: Jonah, who tried to escape the calling of our Lord, what was the result?”

I find this use in fiction, in dialogue, to be the exception, but it follows the principle of amplification—the question amplifies or explains what the speaker meant by “this.”

More commonly the colon precedes a list of examples or clarifying elements.

    The newspaper only covered the major team sports: football, basketball, soccer, and baseball/softball.

Please note, a colon is inappropriate when introducing a list with a verb, a preposition, or before a transition such as namely or for example.

    An author’s bio should only include information pertinent to writing, namely, writer awards, publishing credits, and writing courses.

Notice the absence of a colon after namely.

    Some of my favorite books are Watership Down, Till We Have Faces, and The Book of Three.

Again note there is no colon after the verb are.

    The workshop dealt with point of view, speaker attributions, and excessive use of adverbs.

In the above example, no colon is needed after the preposition with.

More often a list requiring a colon utilizes a phrase like as follows or the following.

    The ingredients in this recipe for pie crust are as follows: flour, water, shortening, and salt.

In addition to the introduction of a list, the colon may be used between independent clauses, much as a semicolon is used, “though more strongly emphasizing sequence” (Chicago, 6.63).

    Many of the members of their writers’ group attend conferences: three went to Mount Hermon, and three more registered for the OC Writers’ Conference.

In the above example, the second and third clauses come naturally after the first. The order could not be reversed and still retain clarity. In other words, the sequence is vital; therefore, the colon is the better punctuation mark.

A third use of the colon is to introduce a series of related sentences.

    The agent awaited the author’s decision: Would he finish the novel first? Or would he begin his memoir while his name was still before the public?

One more. A colon may introduce speech or a short excerpt. A common use of the colon in this way is in a script. But on occasion a writer wishes to refer to quoted material and the colon is the best introduction. Here’s an example.

    His favorite opening line is as stunning as it is brief: “Call me Ishmael.”

With all these uses, it’s a wonder we don’t see more colons. Their uses are perhaps more specialized than, say, the comma that appears when we want to indicate a pause.

My recommendation? Without a specific reason to employ a colon, don’t. 😀

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 6

Commas Used in Elliptical Constructions.

Commas indicate a slight pause. In an elliptical construction—a sentence in which a word has been left out—commas usually fill in the gap. Usually! There is the dreaded exception—sometimes the meaning is clear without the comma, no pause occurs naturally in reading the sentence, and therefore, no comma is needed.

Examples are always helpful. Here’s a sentence with elliptical construction:

    I moved here from Colorado; Jeff, from Florida; and Sally, from Alaska.

The sentence actually has three clauses:

  • I moved here from Colorado
  • Jeff moved here from Florida
  • Sally moved here from Alaska

In the last two, however, words are missing. The comma has been inserted to show where those understood words belong.

Here’s another example:


    In professional basketball teams play eight-two games; in football, sixteen; in baseball, one hundred sixty-two.

Sometimes the meaning of a sentence is so clear, the commas aren’t needed.

    One writer is good at characterization, another at plots, and a third at setting.

I’m inclined to think that the presence of a pause should be your guide. You might feel like you’re “just guessing,” but your decision will be based on the purpose of the comma—it’s there to tell the reader to take a breath or at least to take a break, a slight one.

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 3

Commas Used with Parenthetical Expressions.

I had no intention of staying away so long. Computer problems brought on my absence, then blogging about punctuation slid toward the bottom of the list of priorities as I scrambled to catch up.

I think that’s as it should be. Good punctuation does not make good writing. It only makes good writing clearer.

I want to pick up the instruction on comma use with one of the easier directives—easier, that is, until we get to the “except” part of the rule.

But here’s the essence: Use commas to separate non-essentials from the rest of the sentence. (The grammatical term is “parenthetical elements”). What do I mean by “non-essentials”? Interjections, like oh and indeed; transitions like however and therefore; and descriptive phrases like … well, I’ll need to give an example.

    The most tiresome, if not the most oft-repeated, argument is seldom persuasive.

In this sentence, if not the most oft-repeated does not add essential meaning. If the writer were to remove it, the sentence would still be complete and clear. Think of these kinds of phrases as bonus material—helpful, informative, but not part of the basic package.

I mentioned an exception, but that isn’t quite accurate. On rare occasions interjections or transitions may be essential, in which case, they do not fall under this non-essentials directive.

That may seem confusing if a writer is thinking that some words, by virtue of their part of speech, must be separated by commas from the rest of the sentence. However, if a person thinks of the function of the word in a particular sentence, there’s a bit of a judgment call, which can make comma use a little iffy.

Here’s an example of a necessary transition:

    Two workers didn’t finish and therefore received less pay.

The transition therefore serves as a necessary tie between the cause and the outcome and therefore does not require commas. (Just as the therefore in this sentence does not. 😀 )

Fortunately, as I stated above, these occasions are not frequent.

Probably the most helpful piece of information to remember is this from Chicago Manual of Style: “Commas set off [separate from the rest of the sentence] parenthetical elements if a slight break is intended.” (CMS, 6.30)

Now every writer should be able to identify the places he intends to create a slight break, shouldn’t he? 😉

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