Oh dash … double dash!

English: CMOS 16 cover image.

English: CMOS 16 cover image. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was intrigued when Port Yonder Press in a Facebook discussion talked about the em dash being used in dialogue (among other things) when speech is interrupted. This was according to the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the bible for editors in America. My editing experience is from an Australian perspective where we often use the ellipsis points (…) as an indication of interrupted speech or where words are omitted. I thought I’d go to the Australian Style Manual for authors, editors and printers, and what I found was quite interesting.

I discovered that the manual talks about the 2-em rule which can be used for sudden breaks and omissions. I go on to quote here my sixth edition on page 107:

A 2-em rule can be used to mark an abrupt break in direct or reported speech: 

I distinctly heard him say, ‘Go away or I’ll —— ‘ 

In this instance a space is used to separate the rule from the preceding word because a complete word is missing. If only part of the word is missing, no space is used:

It was alleged that D—— had been threatened with blackmail.

The double em dash is solid in the manual but I just had to use two em rules in succession here.

The use of the ellipsis is differentiated in the manual (page 110) in that they are primarily used to show an omission of a word or words from quoted material. It goes on to say that ellipsis points can also signify indecision and incompleteness.

Well, as they say (hey, it’s always those clever people called ‘they’!), you learn something new every day.

Those three dots …

A quite handy little punctuation device is the ellipsis (or plural ellipses), those three points that indicate that something has been omitted or in dialogue, a hesitation or something left unsaid, unfinished. I see it used a lot in articles and stories, but some writers think they can use it instead of an en dash or colon, where something is introduced as a statement arising from something the writer is saying. For example, say I wanted to qualify something I was writing  – like this, but instead put … You can see that the ellipses are used wrongly.

The style rule in Australia for ellipses is to put a space either side, and when found at the end of a sentence, not to add a period. Used correctly, ellipses can really liven up a narrative, and can be used, say, instead of the speaker ‘trailing off’. Do you use ellipses? I do …

Dashing off

Editors know them more than writers, but the humble dash takes various forms and tasks. A lot of writers will plug on with the lowly hyphen (-) which is the shortest of all the dashes. Its job really is not to separate parts of a sentence nor as a substitute for ‘to’ such as in 1945 to 2001. The hyphen is used to join two words to create a single entity, which can lead eventually to dispensing with the hyphen altogether. Take the word ‘cooperate’ for example. Some publications continue to use the hyphen as in ‘co-operate’ to avoid mispronunciation while the accepted form now has no hyphen. That is because it is in common usage and people know how it is pronounced. Two words may be hyphenated to become a single adjective as in ‘short-term solution’. And the danger here is to hyphenate when there is no implied adjective.

The second job of a hyphen is to split a long word in column formatting so as to create an even margin on the right side of the column, or as close to even as possible. Hyphenation then occurs between syllables to avoid an awkward cut of the word.

After hyphens there are two longer forms of dashes with names taken from early typography – the en dash and the em dash. I just used an en dash (roughly the width of the letter ‘n’) to separate the last phrase from the main sentence. Here it can be used instead of the colon to denote something following. When it is used with a space to either side of it, the en dash acts as a separator. This is crucial and a cause for many errors among writers. When you remove the spaces, the en dash joins two parts, not like the hyphen, but roughly to mean ‘to’, as in 1945–2001.

The last dash form – the em dash – is similar to the en dash in that it can be used as a separator, but without spaces. Its use is a matter of publication style or an editor/writer’s preference. The em dash—used like this—separates the verb phrase here instead of using commas, and therefore highlighting the phrase more and avoiding confused phraseology.