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The em dash

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Great article!  And as to this —

Lee Strasberg, a founder of the Group Theatre and the great teacher of the American Method, famously advised his students never to “use”—for generating tears, etc., in a dramatic scene—personal/historical material less than seven years in the personal/historical past; otherwise, the Emotion Memory (the death of a loved one or some like event in the actor’s life that can, when evoked through recall and substitution, hurl open the floodgates, as they say, right on cue, night after night, even during a long run)—this material, being too close, as it were, might overwhelm the artist and compromise the total control required to act the part or, more to the point, act it well; might, in fact, destabilize the play; if, for instance, at the moment in a scene when it becomes necessary for Nina or Gertrude or Macduff to wipe away tears and get on with life; if, at that moment, it becomes impossible for a wailing performer to pull it together; if, in other words, the performer remains trapped in affect long after the character has moved on to dinner or the battlefield—when this happens, then you can be sure that delirious theatrical mayhem will follow.

— I can only applaud the courage of anyone who can write a sentence like that for public viewing.

C

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Yes, great article, indeed. I want my eulogy—if I am lucky enough to have one—to include the fact that I knew when to use the hyphen, the minus-sign, the en-dash, and the em-dash; that I insisted on using them correctly in my facebook postings, SMS text messages, and things that I edit for other people; and that today—February 5, 2018—while exploring the wonderfulness of using Android voice recognition for text messages, I had a bit of a tantrum when I discovered that I could not insert an em-dash simply by saying "em-dash," similar to how I can insert a period or comma simply by saying the name of that punctuation.

I tend to use the em-dash in pairs, to set off parenthetical material. I consider it the outermost "parenthesis" in a group that also includes actual perentheses and commas, all properly nested, of course.

I probably over-use em-dashes, but I do like them. It seems to me that they make the parenthetical material "jump out of the page," more than parentheses and commas do. I judge writing by how easy it is to parse.

I am not much in the habit of using a single em-dash to set off something at the end of a sentence or clause. For me, the a colon or even a semicolon or comma usually works as well. But I was delighted to see a nice counterexample in the last em-dash of the excerpt from Emily Dickinson.

One final point: I am very glad that wvl linked to that article, because it answers a question that  has always puzzled me: What should I do when the parenthetical material within the em-dashes contains a terminator, such as an exclamation point or question mark. Donald Antrium and Noreen Malone give us perfect examples:

Ever since his wife had left him—but she wasn’t his wife, was she? he’d only thought of her that way, since her abrupt departure, the year before, with Richard Bishop—Jonathan... 

and...

The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing.

In other words, include the "terminator" but do not capitalize the next word. I'm not sure that works in every case, but it does here.

peter

 
 

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Poets have long used the em-dash, as one of a set that includes the comma, the semicolon, and the colon, as a rhythm determinator.  Witness the citation given Emily Dickinson within the article vwl has linked for us--although sweet Emily was overly prone to using it for gasps and  'dear me' moments within her verse.  These expressions of poetic rhythm and pace is key to the ability of non-rhyming free verse to seize upon a reader's imagination and understanding.

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11 hours ago, PeterSJC said:

Ever since his wife had left him—but she wasn’t his wife, was she? he’d only thought of her that way, since her abrupt departure, the year before, with Richard Bishop—Jonathan... 

In other words, include the "terminator" but do not capitalize the next word. I'm not sure that works in every case, but it does here.

peter 

     I'm not sure I agree with that.  It looks odd to me—erroneous, even.  I would guess the use of the question mark gave him an excuse not to capitalize the next word, but I don't think it works.  Why not capitalize the next word?  It would not change the meaning at all.  I've seen, we've all seen, several complete sentences contained within two em dashes.  With capital letters and periods.  And that works perfectly.

C

 

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6 hours ago, Cole Parker said:

     I'm not sure I agree with that.  It looks odd to me—erroneous, even.  I would guess the use of the question mark gave him an excuse not to capitalize the next word, but I don't think it works.  Why not capitalize the next word?  It would not change the meaning at all.  I've seen, we've all seen, several complete sentences contained within two em dashes.  With capital letters and periods.  And that works perfectly.

Well, you might be right. I will keep my eyes and mind open. This is an issue that I have never seen addressed in a style guide. I would happily follow whatever convention a guide or the author prefers. But as I have implied, in my reference to "jumping out of the page," the purpose of punctuation is to eliminate ambiguity and facilitate a reader's parsing of the material. When I encounter an em-dash, it could be one that sets off parenthetical material at the end of a sentence. Or it could be the first of a pair of em-dashes. So, I would need to scan ahead to see whether the the text following the terminator is really another sentence, or part of the same one, and whether the em-dash in that "sentence" is a single or the first of a pair. That's a lot of parsing.

I will grant that it looks weird not to capitalize the first word after a question mark or exclamation point, but the convention is adopted, it will begin to look normal. 

As for having complete sentences within a pair of em-dashes, I would much prefer to reorder things within the paragraph, or just use parentheses or brackets instead. The rule is clear: a parenthesis that is opened inside a sentence must have a closing parenthesis inside the same sentence. Writing should not always be easy to understand, but it should be easy to parse.

p

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7 minutes ago, PeterSJC said:

        When I encounter an em-dash, it could be one that sets off parenthetical material at the end of a sentence. Or it could be the first of a pair of em-dashes. So, I would need to scan ahead to see whether the the text following the terminator is really another sentence, or part of the same one, and whether the em-dash in that "sentence" is a single or the first of a pair. That's a lot of parsing.

P

I have a suggestion for you, Peter.  When editing and confronting a single em dash, don't look ahead!  Make life easier for yourself; just keep reading!  Then, if the sentence containing the single em dash ends up seeming weird, or to use a word Nigel did recently: eldritch, at that point you can try to figure out what's wrong with the damned thing.  But usually, it it's competent writer—and why would you be editing the work of an incompetent one?—then he'll have punctuated the sentence correctly and there'll be no problem whatsoever.  No reading ahead required.

Keep it simple.   :smile:

C

 

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When we can't resolve the issue of whether an em-dash has a space before and after or not how on earth can we even pretend to give peace a chance? 

Much of the problem is the multiplicity of 'standards' meaning there isn't really any standard! I have a personal preference for a space at each end of an m-dash, and my editor had better let me get away with it or there's going to be ink in the streets tonight. But the overriding consideration would be does it a) look good AND b) transmit the author's intent. Anything else is po-TAY-to versus po-TAH-to and does anybody really say po-TAH-to?

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Chris:

The way I decide these things is generally by going with what is being published these days.   That's why many of my early stories use the spelling for okay as OK.   That's the way it was generally presented in published works back then.  Almost every published piece wrote it like that.  Of course, some wrote is o.k., and some Ok.  But the two most popular were okay and OK.  And OK was the hands-down winner.

Since then, there's been a gradual change back to okay, although OK still appears.  Accordingly, I'm finding myself accepting the okay spelling.

The same applies with the em dash.  Spaces or no spaces.  We see it both ways.  I don't use the space because the preponderance of printed material doesn't use the space.  Some does.  Most doesn't.  I personally like the looks of the no-space method better, so I'm happy to do it that way.  But if I start seeing more and more space/em dash/ space usages, I may well change.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.  Anyone know who said that?  Probably a Brit.  They come up with the best phases.

C

 

 

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7 hours ago, Cole Parker said:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.  Anyone know who said that?  Probably a Brit. 

 

 

My (American) father said it, long before I had any idea what a hobgoblin was. But Ralph Waldo Emerson (also American) said it first. The entire paragraph is worth reading:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/353571-a-foolish-consistency-is-the-hobgoblin-of-little-minds-adored

It's important to note that Emerson was referring to consistency of ideas, of the fear of looking stupid because something you say today contradicts what you said yesterday.

Standards, on the other hand, are about making it easy for the user of a product (the reader of a story, in our context).  My Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck was made in 1992, a year when GM's transition from SAE to metric bolts was incomplete. I would have no objection to that, if they had used one standard in that model and another in a different one, but they mixed them in mine, which is a minor inconvenience. Similarly, when I'm putting something back together, if I can't find one of the Phillips-head screws, I might use a slotted-head one, but it's unprofessional.

My rule about spelling/punctuation consistency is this: try to spell "OK" the same way, and to use the same dash conventions—em vs en, single vs double, spaced vs non-spaced—within the same story or chapter. If I'm editing someone else's story, I go with the author's preference, sometimes determined by counting how many times she does it one way vs the other. When I edit my synagogue's monthly newsletter, I strive for a consistent look across all articles.

p

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8 hours ago, ChrisR said:

Much of the problem is the multiplicity of 'standards' meaning there isn't really any standard! I have a personal preference for a space at each end of an m-dash, and my editor had better let me get away with it or there's going to be ink in the streets tonight. 

"Ink in the streets"? I like your turn of phrase!

As an internet fiction writer, you—not the editor—are the final reviewer. Editing software allows proposed changes to be committed or rejected.

Newspapers, magazines, and academic publishers have house style guides, e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style. Their editors should make sure your work conforms.

As an editor, I get most of my guidance from Wikipedia, not just from their Manual of Style (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Manual_of_Style) but from actual articles. For instance, in a previous posting here, I wasn't sure whether to write "phillips-head" or "Phillips-head," so looked up their Screwdriver article:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screwdriver

p

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Interesting.  They hyphenate Phillips-head screw, but not Phillips screwdriver.  Talk about consistency!  

Of course, that could be a case of hyphenating an adjective: Phillips-head screw has the hyphen in the adjective.  Phillips screwdriver has no adjective to hyphenate.

 

C

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I don't use the M-dash as often as some others who write stories here. When I do, I almost always use the "loose" version — as shown here instead of the tight version—because of the way it looks. The loose M-dash is discussed in comments in the article, as well as loose … and …attached and tight.ellipses, the meaning of which now includes use as a short pause, especially in dialogue, and not that something is missing.

Isn't the English language fun? And always remember, it's a living language as this article demonstrates.

Colin  :icon_geek:

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5 hours ago, Cole Parker said:

Interesting.  They hyphenate Phillips-head screw, but not Phillips screwdriver.  Talk about consistency!  

Of course, that could be a case of hyphenating an adjective: Phillips-head screw has the hyphen in the adjective.  Phillips screwdriver has no adjective to hyphenate.

Yeah, I shouldn't have used that as an example. I had used Wikipedia as a quick'n'dirty way to infer a usage rule where one might not really exist. It seems to me that the trend in English is for things that were once capitalized to be put in lower case. In the case of the screw head, it was once a trade name of the Phillips Screw Company, which held the patent until it expired in 1966.

And as we all know, the current version of any Wikipedia article should not be used as an authority for anything. 

p

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