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By the way

Yesterday on Twitter @CopyCurmudgeon set off a brief exchange on parentheses: I'd rather have too many em dashes than too many parentheticals. Parentheses say, "Ignore me (I don't matter)."

Responses came quickly from @Your_Wordsworth, Sometimes they're just an aside. But if the aside is important, it probably shouldn't be in parentheses* and @JuneCasagrande, Parentheses can be a 'dis to reader, too, cramming in info the writer was supposed to weave into digestible narrative.

So I thought, prone as I am to drifting off-topic in mid-sentence, I might clarify a little about parentheticals.

The most common parentheticals are appositives and other phrases or clauses set off by commas: His wife, whose first husband went out for cigarettes one night and never came back, is an accomplished cook whose coq au vin has been the centerpiece of many holiday meals.

Parentheses function as asides do in speech—you know, turning your head slightly and dropping your voice. His editing (they say he’s known to take a drink in the daytime) gets increasingly erratic by midafternoon.

And the em dash, with spaces on either side or not, as your house style dictates, is intended to indicate a sharp break in continuity: They don’t understand production, they make a dog’s breakfast of the coding, they might make deadline if they learned to tell time, and—damn, I didn’t think they could hear me.

You notice that this sequence, commas, parentheses, dashes, is a pattern of increasing interruption of the flow of the text. But not everyone honors it.

Newspaper journalists are in the unfortunate habit of using parentheses where brackets would be appropriate for interpolated information, a nasty habit encouraged by the Associated Press. And they are so dash-happy that they use dashes all the time and everywhere, cluttering the page and diluting the effect.

If you’re an editor, experiment with replacing the reporter’s em dashes with commas. I think you’ll find that it makes the text easier to read and also gains you a few lines when you need to cut.




Posted by John McIntyre at 9:41 AM | | Comments (10)


what kind of style do you use on this blog --- Chicago? Why no spaces on either side of your long/em dashes?


Long ago I took this summary to heart, though I have forgotten where I saw it: "Dashes emphasize, parentheses minimize, commas merely enclose." This refers, of course, to the uses of dashes and commas in pairs.

More footnotes to the people!

Seriously, a footnote, or a sidebar, or any separate information blurb like that is underused today. While footnotes are alive and well as off-line hyperlinks in scholarly literature, their use in asides is not.

Your use above is a good example. Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett have elevated the incidental footnote into, if not art, then at least high comedy.

Many longer parenthetical remarks could do with a quick footnote; comments can be comfortably spread out over multiple sentences rather than desperately crammed into a single subordinate clause.

This may be parenthetical to the issue at hand, but am I the only one bothered by the quoted tweet that has an apostrophe at the beginning of dis? The word is an abbreviation of "disrespect," so if there is an apostrophe at all, shouldn't it be at the end?

I missed that, JD, but you are so right.

Regarding setting em dashes with spaces, I, too, always thought it was a matter of house style, but then a graphic designer showed me her typography book in which it was clearly stated that em dashes are set without added spaces. Whether a slight space appears around them is determined by the type designer. So, if you don't like it when em dashes touches the letters, select a font where they don't. At least, that's how I now understand it.

Ah, Sharon, but it's not a question of what the damn book says, but of how the type feeds the eyes. A matter of taste, no doubt, but my taste is certainly for a word space - which every other form of parenthesis carries - to be present with the em dash, too.

the unfortunate habit of using parentheses where brackets would be appropriate

A bit confusing for those of us who speak British or Australian English, in which "parentheses" and "brackets" are usually the same thing. :-)

To be more precise, these (known to Americans as parentheses) are usually called "round brackets", or just "brackets". These [known to Americans as brackets] are called "square brackets". And these {known to Americans as braces} are called "curly brackets".

By the way, one practical disadvantage of spaces around em dashes in narrow newspaper measures is that they take up room. One practical advantage is that they provide two extra justification points (places where the hyphenation and justification program can add word space to pad out the line). Naturally, since I like the space, I think the advantage outweighs the disadvantage.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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