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A dash of restraint

A welcome sight in this weekend in The New York Times is an article by Ben Zimmer* on whether a close enough analysis of email texts can establish who the author is by identifying characteristic features of punctuation, capitalization, vocabulary, and syntax. It is a job for forensic linguists.**

In the course of the article, Mr. Zimmer made an admission: “Surely we all have our own written quirks and mannerisms — I tend to overuse em-dashes, for instance.” It came as no surprise to see a number of people tweet that they, too, overuse the em-dash, as if it were a point of pride rather than shame.

I know that tribe. Journalists as a group are dash-happy, employing dashes where commas would suffice nicely, or parentheses. Of course, they can’t use parentheses, because the Associated Press Stylebook imagines that parentheses are square brackets. Half the time they use also hyphens instead of dashes anyway.

So I’m offering a brief refresher for the punctuationally challenged.

Hyphens most often link things, such as compound adjectives: my 27-year-old twins. (And, dammit, use the hyphen to link all the elements of the compound. No “27-year old twins,” please.)

The em-dash, so called because it is the width of a letter M, or two hyphens in typewriter convention, separates things. It is most properly used to indicate some sharp break of continuity, or draw particular attention to interpolated material, as in the first footnote below. It loses its impact when it merely sets off appositives, for which commas would be the better choice.

The en-dash, the width of the letter N, (See, I could have used dashes there, but I refrained. And this is merely additionally parenthetical, not so sharp a break in continuity.) is more frequently used in book publishing than newspapers. It links ranges of dates, such as 1986–2009, my first stint at The Sun. You probably won’t have much call for it.

Let’s review.

Don’t use hyphens when you want dashes.

When you are tempted to use dashes, stop for a moment to consider whether you really want dashes there rather than commas or parentheses. I’m talking to you, Ben Zimmer.

(And it would be and good and salutary thing if you could bring yourself to use square brackets instead of parentheses to indicate editorial interpolations, the AP be damned.)

Now go and sin no more.


*Don’t think, New York Times, that I have forgotten that you incontinently dropped Mr. Zimmer as “On Language” columnist, and I’m talking to you, Hugo Lindgren. God may forgive—that’s the job description—but I’m Scotch-Irish.

**Not quite the same line of work that I do as a copy editor, though I have performed my share of necropsies. “Put that article on the table. Let’s open it up and find out where it went fatally wrong.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:08 PM | | Comments (17)


Several times I have presented workshops on the same program as another man, who shall remain nameless. This man insists that use of the em-dash is never justified. He would even edit "The mugger said, 'Hand over your wallet -- or else!'" to "The mugger said, 'Hand over your wallet, or else!'" If we can hybridize this man with one of the people who say exclamation points are never advisable, we'll have the mildest muggers in history.

Dashes emphasize, parentheses minimize, commas merely enclose incidental material.

However, if you are Emily Dickinson, you may use the em-dash freely. :-)

My pet peeve is having three or more dashes in the same sentence, making it difficult to tell which parts are parenthetical. Example: The killers -- every one of them atrociously ugly --and their assistants used untraceable handguns -- the identification numbers filed off -- to terrorize The Gym -- a night spot popular among teens. That's a lousy example, but it's hot out.

On a slightly more serious note, the em-dash actually falls into the range of characters that can require some computer savvy to produce. (In most fonts on Windows -- ie, extended ASCII -- it's character 151, and the preferred way in HTML to produce a dash is to use the character entity &8212;. )

That being the case, in any non-formal context (like blog comments) the double hyphen serves the purpose of em-dashery well enough. Sez me. (In Microsoft Word, the default setting, of course, is to convert "--" to "—" without asking. Which can be annoying.)

All of this having been noted, your point is well taken. Em-dashes belong in the category of punctuation that should be employed sparingly by amateurs, and then only under adult supervision.

"Scotch"! Please don't! That's the drink.

@David, but "Scotch-Irish" is a particular ethnic group, which would not be correctly spelled either Scots or Scottish. 18th-century settlers in the Appalachian highlands included Presbyterians originally from the borderlands of Scotland and England (David Hackett Fischer's 'Albion's Seed" calls them 'borderers') who may have also, before coming to America, been part of the Ulster plantation (of Protestants on Irish soil.) Their descendants include any number of Knoxes, Buchanans, McIntyres, McElroys, McAdorys, McCrarys and so on: look in the Knoxville phone book.
Please excuse me if you knew all that, but those are the Scotch-Irish. The ones I know are a hot-tempered bunch.


The dislike Scots now feel for being called Scotch is a fairly recent phenomenon. There was a time when Scotch was more or less the default word, and fixed expressions from that time retain that form (Scotch whisky, Scotch mist, Scotch egg, Scotch-Irish)

Thanks John, great article. I need to attend a support group my habitual use of em-dashes! I had to delete at least one out of this short comment!

Mike: That's — you left out the hash sign. However, — also works and is easier to remember.

John: I have seen the spelling "Scots-Irish" in very recent times. Those who remained in Ireland are correctly called "Ulster Scots".

I once thought as you did, Picky, but I am told that "Scotch" is also applied productively to the name of any foodstuff: lamb raised in Scotland is Scotch, rather than Scottish, lamb. (Young women are another matter.) See , or if that does not make it through, the Language Log posting called "Glum?", the comment by Bob Ladd.

@John Cowan -- thanks, my bad, as the kids say.

I got the 8212 tip from A List Apart (, where they entirely fail to mention the character entity mdash. Odd. Anyway, thanks for the correction.

Is there a support group?


Oh no - not the Scots again. It is, after all, Advent. Spare us, a little...


As a confessed ardent Scottish/ Canadian chauvinist, of sorts (and lapsed bagpiper, no less), I must admit I was a bit flummoxed, or more to the point, gobsmacked, to see the Scottish 'question' rear its tartaned head once again, after almost a four month hibernation, no less.

Following you sentiments, I think I'll just let sleeping Scots lie for now............. at least till after the New Year. HA!

However, Picky might not agree w/ the Scots 'moratorium'. But we shall see.

Ta! Ta! for now, oh terse one,


And a bonnie Christmas to you too, Sir Alex.

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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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