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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.

Posted in February, 2011

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