A Dash of Grammar

I was banging my head against the figurative wall of writer’s block as I became more and more frantic for a spark of inspiration for today’s post—when it suddenly hit me.  Why not conquer two birds with one stone?  1) Satisfy my grammar-loving curiosity by looking up an answer to a punctuation question that I’ve been meaning to investigate for some time and 2) share my new knowledge with my dear readers.

The hyphen (-), the en dash (–), and the em dash (—).  You may not have realized this nuance existed, but there really are three versions of the “dash,” and these punctuation marks have their own sets of distinct rules.  While they all connect words and ideas, they do so to different extents that in some ways relate to their lengths.

Hugging Hyphens

The hyphen is meant to connect extremely close ideas, often compound words (daughter-in-law, user-friendly, etc.).  As an article on The Chicago Manual of Style Online explains, “The hyphen connects two things that are intimately related.”  This little line performs an extremely powerful function in language because people can use it to combine several words in order to create an entirely new word.  Hyphen originally came from Greek words meaning one, together, and in one.

Going the Distance with En Dash

Like the hyphen, the en dash connects ideas, but these connections are usually related to distance, either in time or space.  Here are two examples: “From September–May, most children are in school” and “I have to read chapters 23–30 by next week.”  The en dash functions where the word “through” would normally function when describing a range.  An interesting rule regarding the en dash is that they are meant to be used when connecting “a prefix to a proper open compound: for example, pre–World War II” (“Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes”).  The origin of en dash is that the dash was the width of an N in printing.

Breaking and Filling with Em Dash

em dash examplesLike parentheses and commas, the em dash indicate a break in thought and is used when adding a side-note or additional thought to a sentence, as I used in my opening sentence for this post.  In my experience, the closeness of the idea determines whether you should use a comma, em dash, or parenthesis to set off the extra information or to indicate a disrupted thought.  The closest ideas work best set off by commas, while very tangential ideas should be enclosed in parentheses, with the em dash falling somewhere in the middle.  Another function of the em dash is to indicate that something is missing.  An unfinished bit of dialogue might end with an em dash (e.g., “What is that—!”), and it can also serve as a placeholder for curse words, for people’s names (think Austenian novels), and more.  Like the origin of en dash, the term em dash comes from the fact that the dash was the length of an M in printing.

Now, next time you want to invent a new word, describe a range in time or space, or build suspense as your reader wonders whether your character has just been eaten, you will have just the right tools to accomplish your task.


Works Cited

“Em dash.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.  2011.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash

“En dash.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.  2011.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash

“Hyphens.”  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.  2011.   Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash

“Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes.”  The Chicago Manual of Style Online,            www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/HyphensEnDashesEmDashes/faq0002.html

Parable

Warm lights and soft smiles waltz in these halls tonight,

Remembering the ghosts of revelers past:

Dim figures who embrace each other

Tightly, lightly, as they circle spritely,

Spin, and flash in pairs.


A melancholy settles like a fine dust

On the finery fading year after year

And moments not recalled, yet embalmed

In reels found, unwound, filled with sounds

Of mirth, and wit wasted.


The dancers’ presence lights up the vibrant hall,

With merriment and movement free of memory,

Technicolor dreamers, sad for those

Who depart, dart, straight to our hearts, yet

Laughing since they lived, and will again.

Queen Spider: An Apocryphal Anecdote

‘Tis said that her majesty Queen Elizabeth I of England was taking a stroll in the garden, accompanied by her chief advisers. As they often did, these men were urging her majesty to wed. The Queen merely brushed off their concerns like flies. At length, one of the men demanded of her outright:

“But why will her majesty not marry?  Surely a husband would be of great use to her majesty.”

Elizabeth walked a few more paces, then stopped near the branches of a small tree. She gestured to two thin twigs. Woven between them was a large web, in the middle of which sat a huge spider.

“How many spiders do you see on this web?”  she asked.

“Only one,” replied the advisers, puzzled.

“I am like this spider,” said the Queen. “As she rests in the center of her kingdom, perfectly capable of snaring her own prey and feeding herself, so am I. See how she dexterously maneuvers herself from one thread to another; a mate would only get in her way.”

One of the advisers spoke up: “And yet, your majesty, the spider needs that mate to produce offspring.”

“True,” said Elizabeth, “and when he has fulfilled his part, the female spider will entrap and eat him, as if he were no more than the customary fly. I would not wish such a fate on any man.”  Then, smiling, she calmly took her leave of her councilmen, whom afterward never did press the issue of marriage quite so enthusiastically.

Goodbye & Hello

 

Pen poised over paper,

I hesitate.

About to begin

No—wait!

Oops.  Too late.

Cross that out.

Let’s start again.

 

Hello, old friend.

How have you been?

I saw you just yesterday,

But you look so different

Today.  And who is this?

Oh, your sister?

I don’t believe we’ve met.

 

Hello, how nice to meet you.

(Maybe we can be friends,

But time will tell).

What’s your name?

“Two Thousand Nineteen.”

(Well…that’s unique.)

What an interesting name!

 

You know them too?

Oh, that’s so neat!

And her and him?

What a small world.

Do you have any other siblings?

Several thousand?  Well.  That’s a lot.

I have only three.

 

I need to go, but nice to meet you.

Oh, yes, I know.

Another time…

Oh, no.

Not again.

Wait!  What’s your name?

Too late.

 

Pen over paper

Begins to scrawl.

I think on old friends.

No!  Wrong again.

Ugh.  How frustrating.

Another paper and 364 more days

To get this right.

 

Goodbye, old friend.

Hello, new stranger.

You may have to tell me your name

A few times more.

But I will get it right.

Eventually.  With perhaps

A few relapses.