Using--or Overusing--Symbols to Reinforce Meaning
“Show, don’t tell. ” This is the advice from successful writers. They are referring to using words and phrases that communicate emotion and bring readers a deeper understanding about the stories we are telling. Grammatical symbols like commas, hyphens, dashes, parentheses, colons and semicolons also help us communicate more deeply with our readers. Of all of these, the dash seems to be gaining in popularity. Some believe it is being used too liberally and that this overuse discourages truly efficient writing.
In Elements of Style, Strunk and White caution, “Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.” Philip Corbett, writing for the online Times Insider, says, “Even if the dashes are correct and the syntax intact, we should avoid overdoing the device. It can seem like a tic; worse yet, it can indicate a profusion of overstuffed and loosely constructed sentences, bulging with parenthetical additions and asides. Dashes are useful, but can become a shortcut or a crutch." He suggests, "Be judicious. Look for ways to streamline or break up sentences, or to knit the elements more closely together.”
If you are going to use dashes, here are some guidelines from The Chicago Manual of Style.
1. There are three lengths of what are all more or less dashes: hyphen (-), en dash (–), and em dash (—). They should all be used without spaces between the words, numbers or phrases they are connecting.
2. The hyphen (the shortest of the three) connects two things that are intimately related, usually words that function together as a single concept or work together as a joint modifier (e.g., tie-in, toll-free call, two-thirds).
3. The en dash (longer than the hyphen but shorter than the em dash) connects things that are related to each other by distance, as in the May–September issue of a magazine. In fact en dashes specify any kind of range, which is why they properly appear in indexes when a range of pages is cited (e.g., 147–48).
4. The em dash has several uses. It allows, in a manner similar to parentheses, an additional thought to be added within a sentence by sort of breaking away from that sentence. Its use or misuse for this purpose is a matter of taste, and subject to the effect on the writer’s or reader’s “ear.” Em dashes also substitute for something missing. For example, in a bibliographic list, rather than repeating the same author over and over again, three consecutive em dashes (also known as a 3-em dash) stand in for the author’s name. In interrupted speech, one or two em dashes may be used: “I wasn’t trying to imply——” “Then just what were you trying to do?” Also, the em dash may serve as a sort of bullet point, as in a list of projects or a grocery list.
For more about using grammatical symbols, go to chicagomanualofstyle.org or apstylebook.com
Welcome to The Muse Crew Blog. We're happy to have you. Sit back and scroll through our thoughts and ideas. If you like the post, please consider sharing it. Comments are always welcome!