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.
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.”