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Dashes Are Not Your Playthings

Dashes Are Not Your Playthings

Dashes and ellipses are not your playthings. They are not confetti to throw against your manuscript for decoration. They are real punctuation marks with real functions in our language. I know you enjoy tossing them indiscriminately at your work. Hey, if it's a rough draft, have at it. But before you submit that manuscript to an agent or editor, clean it up! Why give the gatekeepers one more excuse to toss your work in a slush pile because you either don't know or don't follow the rules when it comes to punctuation?

And don't give me that "I like to break the rules" crap. Just like Picasso knew how to paint a scene with photographic accuracy before he developed his well-known style, you too must master the rules before you bend them. Creativity should not be used as a cover for laziness.

In an attempt to "get it right" for my most recent manuscript, I studied up a bit and tried to boil it all down into one easy-to-understand lesson. Hope this helps.

I.The ellipsis, or dot,dot,dot to some of us (formed in Word with Cont-Alt-Period) is used for:
1) omitted words or phrases, such as "Whether 'tis nobler suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune..."
2) an unfinished thought or a trailing off , like "I don't know what to say ..." or "Oh, well ..."
3)a pause, as in, "You...uh...asked to see me?"

II. An em dash (so named because it took up the same space as an "m" on the keyboard, longer than an "en" dash which took the space of an "n") is formed in Word with Fn-Contr-Alt-Minus. (Minus is usually just left of Enter and shares the key with colon and semi-colon) An em dash is used when:
1) a speaker is interrupted by someone, as in, "This is the last time you're going to—"she said. "Don't lecture me!" he interrupted.
2) a speaker is too emotional to continue and interrupts self, for example, "I can't tell you what your gift means to me and my—"
3) a speaker changes gears in mid sentence, like, "I thought you were going to—why didn't you bring it?"
4)a parenthetical comment is added in the middle of a thought for clarification, such as, "I finally understood—for the very first time—what dashes were used for."

In informal writing em dashes can take the place of commas, semi-colons,colons, or periods:
In replacing commas, paired dashes add more emphasis. "I am the friend—the only friend—who told you the truth about that skirt." They move the dialogue at a faster pace when used as a semi-colon, "You ate the brownie—I gained the weight," a period, "You can learn this—it's not rocket science," or a colon, "I brought the necessary beach accessories—lotion, books, and booze."

III.An en dash is just the hyphen used in compound words like brother-in-law, compound numbers like thirty-three and prefixes like mid-1950's or ex-wife. It's also used to divide words into syllables, and of course, in phone numbers. En dashes also show duration, as in 8:00 – 5:00, and Feb. 4-6.

Let's review, shall we?
Ellipses: omitted, unfinished, pause.
Em dash: interrupted, emotional, change gears, parenthetical.

Yes, there is some overlap. There will be times, a few, when either an ellipse or an em dash would be appropriate. When that happens, your choice is simple. Use the dash if your speaker would be talking fast or is in a tense situation, and an ellipse if you want to slow the dialogue down a bit. (It works. Try it.)

Feel free to add any tips you've discovered that might help others to play nice with punctuation or tips to help writers bend Microsoft Word to our wills when punctuating.

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Posted in February, 2011


Courtney Update

I'd lost track of Courtney, the hero of my Katrina story, for awhile. It wasn't the first time. People without cell phones or permanent addresses can be difficult to find. "Streets" was pretty good about checking in with me, but this time it had been about six months – and I was worried.

My head was filled with images of all the things that can go wrong for people living on the margins of society – people who don't know where they'll find food, people who move from one apartment to another as they're kicked out again and again for not being able to pay rent. Courtney had worked so hard for so long to stay out of trouble. I could only hope he was okay.

And then I got a text on December 25. "Merry Christmas." A number I didn't know. "Merry Christmas to you, but who is this?" I texted back. "Courtney Miles," came the reply. I was so relieved!

I called him immediately and was thrilled to learn he's safe and still in school. He'll finish junior college this spring and is still on track for a basketball scholarship to a four-year university next fall. He said he'd tried to call me a couple of times. (My phone service is terrible lately, and many long conversations with AT&T have not improved the situation. )

The good news is that Courtney's safe and in school. The bad news, he told me - he's being evicted from his apartment next week because he's behind on the rent.

I promised to try to find a way to help, but hung up feeling frustrated that there wasn't much I could do. I've sent him grocery money many times, but the cost of an apartment in California was beyond my means. If I lived near his school, I'd gladly take him in, but we're thousands of miles away. So I did the only think I know how to do. I wrote.

I wrote a letter and emailed it to the pastors of ten churches in Oakland and Alameda, asking for help for Courtney, telling them about his life and his accomplishments, what a great guy he is and asking for help in finding a place for him to live.

And the responses came – complete strangers with arms wide open offering to help someone they'd never met. A man named Stephen Jones of Central Baptist Church is demonstrating what "ministering" is all about by working to place Courtney with a family from his congregation. He and his son have driven to Courtney's apartment with groceries, called his landlord to negotiate a few more days, and looked into helping him replace the birth certificate he lost in Hurricane Katrina – all within 24 hours of receiving my letter. What an amazing "hands-on" approach to God's command to love one another!
So many people talk about their faith; Stephen Jones is living it.

I'm so grateful. And so optimistic about the difference a support network like this can make in Courtney's life. What a wonderful Christmas gift - to Courtney and to me! Courtney's story is only just beginning.

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Posted in 2011