Pesky things, dashes. They creep in at the oddest moments, and if you’re not careful, end up making your work look like some barmy kind of Morse code.
First of all, there’s the hyphen. Now, here’s the thing: hyphens are going out of fashion. There are those who swear by them and those who abhor them. Email or e–mail? Co–operation or cooperation? Go with house style or check the dictionary, or use your own judgement; but be consistent.
Consider, if you will, Clive Ffordingley–Haggis, the red-haired squire of North Devonshire, who carries a double–barrelled shotgun, and avoids the built–up areas of the village when he rides out.
red–haired is a compound adjective. It shows that he is not a red, haired squire, but the Devonshire squire who has red hair.
Ffordingley–Haggis is a name made up of two parts joined by a hyphen.
Both double–barrelled and built–up are as given in the OED.
A hyphen can also be used when you need to spread a word across two lines, rather than leave a large gap. Your word processor can be told to do this for you, or you can do it yourself, but be careful where you split the word so that it makes sense.
A dash, however, is not there to make one word out of two; on the contrary, it is there to separate. If you’re emailing a friend – as we all do – you probably chuck dashes in where brackets/parentheses would more usually appear. We use them to insert comments – the sort of interruption that probably doesn’t need to be there at all – into the middle of otherwise perfectly good sentences.
There are reasons to use dashes: but even if you know what those reasons are, you then have to choose what sort of dash to add.
There are two lengths of dash: the em and the en. Word, not altogether helpfully, will make up its own mind how long your dash should be, so it may be better to choose it for yourself.
The em dash — is a line that covers the same space as the letter m on your page: you can find it under Symbols in Word. You can create it with ctrl+alt+Num- (the minus on your number keypad). It is used with no spacing before and after—like this.
The en dash – is a line that covers the same space as the letter n. It is usually used with a space before and after – like this. It’s created with ctrl+Num-
It’s easy to over-dash. When dashes denote an interruption or insertion, they could be replaced (in some circumstances) with parentheses; but an excess of those on your page is not only just as annoying as a rash of dashes but also amateurish. If the part that’s being sectioned off could be cut out altogether, do so, thereby solving the problem. If, however, the words forming the insertion are there to underline a point – as they should be – then dashes are the marks to use.
Which you choose is up to you. Fashion raises its head once again and suggests that the em dash is becoming passé in the UK but not in the US. The thing is to make sure that you use your favourite properly: no spaces with the em dash – except when it’s being used to mark a missing word, as in the — of Devonshire, and nearly always spaces with the en dash.
Exceptions to the en dash space rule:
if you wish to express a range or sequence, as in 35–40, 2015–16, you use the en dash with no spacing;
where two people’s names are linked by an implied and, as in a Holmes–Watson mystery;
in pairs of words linked by to, as in the Paddington–Penzance train.
You can use either kind to denote missing letters: the Duke of D— stayed at the R— Hotel, or The Duke of De – – – shire, but only the spaced em dash to mark a complete missing word, as noted above.
If you break off a line of dialogue, always use the em dash.
‘What do you mean, you don’t—‘
‘Of course I don’t! This is the first I’ve heard of the idea,’ Ffordingley–Haggis shrugged.
‘I knew—as soon as I saw you, I knew—‘
‘I knew – as soon as I saw you, I knew—‘
‘I knew!—as soon as I saw you, I knew!—‘ where the exclamation mark is permitted before the dash, whichever one you use, but no other mark is allowed there. There is no capital after a dash, as in as soon as I saw you, even if it starts a new sentence, unless it’s a proper name.
‘Knew what, for crying out loud?’ Ffordingley–Haggis pulled off his cap, and ran his hand through his luxuriant mahogany locks.
‘That’s it—that’s the clue! It’s the hair, of course! Dash it all—you’re my father!’
‘That’s it – that’s the clue! It’s the hair, of course! Dash it all – you’re my father!’
Ffordingley–Haggis Junior has had a revelation – though whether it’s the red hair or a red herring is another story entirely.
Father is a noun like any other, except when it’s also a name. The same goes for mother, aunt and uncle. There are times when these take a capital and times when they don’t.
When you use Father as a name – For goodness’ sake, Father, must you smoke that pipe in here? – it takes a capital. You could replace it with George in that instance (unless his name isn’t George).
My father likes to smoke his pipe in the kitchen. In this case, I’m saying that the man who stands in relation to me as a father likes to smoke his pipe there.
Mother objects when Father smokes his pipe in the kitchen. Dora objects when George smokes his pipe in the kitchen.
My mother objects when my father smokes his pipe in the kitchen. You can’t replace the words mother and father with Dora and George in this sentence – my Dora and my George; therefore they are not standing in for names and take no capital. Try replacing them: My parents argue when Father smokes his pipe. You wouldn’t write my Parents.
Does your mother object when your father smokes his pipe in the kitchen? You could replace mother and father here, but it depends on context. If I know your parents as George and Dora, I could ask, Does Dora object… but as written, I’m referring to them indirectly through their relationship to you, as before.
You can of course apply the same rules to Mum and Dad.
Part of the perceived problem arises because these two people are your parents. If you changed the words, you’d see the difference.
My brother likes to smoke his pipe in the kitchen. My sister likes to smoke her pipe in the kitchen. (We’re an equal opportunities blog here.) You would probably not in modern parlance refer to your siblings as Brother or Sister: For goodness’ sake, Sister, must you smoke your pipe in here? That sounds rather Victorian. You would be more likely to refer to her by name instead. For goodness’ sake, Penelope…
You would capitalise Sister, however, if the lady you refer to is a nun or a senior nurse in charge of a ward. In those cases Sister is a title. Brother also can be a title if referring to a member of an order of monks; similarly, there is Father (a priest), Reverend Mother, and Mother Superior. There is also Father of the House (parliamentary), which again is a title.
My aunt objects when my uncle smokes his pipe anywhere at all. Aunt objects when Uncle smokes his pipe. Aunt May objects when Uncle Simon smokes his pipe. Uncle Simon carries on regardless.
To sum up: if you could replace the word with a name, use a capital. If it’s a title, use a capital. If neither of these applies, don’t.
An innocuous little word, isn’t it? Yet it rates five centimetres of column space in the dictionary.
It means at that time; after that; also; in that case. It can be used as added emphasis: ‘I see you’ve burnt the cakes, then, Alfred.’
These are all perfectly acceptable uses and meanings.
The problem (and you knew there was one or I wouldn’t be writing it about it) comes when it’s overused. Here’s an example.
Alfred thought he had solved the problem of the Vikings. He agreed to pay them lots of money and they undertook to stop invading his land. Then the rotters gathered a huge army and invaded anyway. Alfred was then forced to flee, and to roam Somerset disguised as a peasant, while he sought a lasting solution from a position of safety.
Then one day he came to the house of a poor woman, who agreed to take him in; but not knowing (or caring) that he was her king, she made him do chores in lieu of rent.
‘I’m going out foraging,’ she told him one bright morning. ‘I’ve set some cakes by the fire to cook. Watch them carefully, and don’t let them burn.’ Then, with a pointed finger and a fierce stare that warned of retribution if he failed, she stalked out, leaving him to it.
He was lost in thought, his mind dwelling, as it must, on kingly matters. For a long time he just sat there, his head in his hands. Then he heard the good woman’s steps, and he looked at the hearth. The cakes were blackened ruins.
She entered. She stopped. She sniffed the air. ‘I see you burnt the cakes, then, Alfred,’ she said with unnatural calm. ‘I ask one simple thing of you, and this is the result.’ Then with a piercing shriek she grabbed the besom broom and brought it down upon Alfred’s head.
This happened; then that happened, and then that happened, and then another thing happened… put like that, you can see the difficulty.
To begin with, there’s the repetition: then appears seven times in some fifteen lines of text.
All too often, then creeps in where it doesn’t need to be. It’s put there to signify that things follow in sequence; but you’ve written them in sequence, so the reader already knows – you don’t have to tell him. It’s like presenting a list with bullet points – not what you want in your sweated-over prose. ‘This reads like a presentation to the board of governors’ isn’t the kind of response you’re hoping for, unless of course it is a presentation to the board of governors.
Try dropping all the thens that crop up in your work. You may find that some actually belong there: Then the rotters gathered a huge army and invaded anyway. Others are just filling space that doesn’t need to be filled: Alfred was then forced to flee; Then one day and Then…she stalked out, leaving him to it. Remove them, and the text becomes more immediate.
Then can be distancing; it can also turn your work into plodding prose with no spark. It slows things down, putting a small hiatus between one action and the next by forming an introduction to that subsequent action. Go straight into it instead, and you pick up pace.
‘I see you burnt the cakes, then, Alfred,’ she said with unnatural calm. ‘I ask one simple thing of you, and this is the result.’ With a piercing shriek she grabbed the besom broom and brought it down upon Alfred’s head.
I’ve kept the use in the first line, because it’s a natural part of the woman’s speech. I’ve cut the next one out, with the result that she moves from her complaint straight into sound and movement.
It’s just a little word, but it has an effect far beyond its size. If it really needs to be there, well and good; if not, then lose it.
For some reason, people fall over themselves to try to get this right, and end up getting it horribly wrong instead. This is a simple guide to how to tell which pronoun to use correctly – but see the anomaly below.
Myself went to a party. Me had a good time until someone spilt their drink on I.
Yes, it’s total nonsense. You’d never talk like that; but it’s only a natural progression from the confusion over when to use I, me, and myself.
I do things. Things are done to me.
I went to a party. I had a good time until someone spilt their drink on me.
My husband and I went to a party. It’s obvious, when you’ve seen the line, I went to a party; but all too often you’ll see My husband and me went to a party. Who went to the party? My husband and me.
You wouldn’t say me went, so don’t say My husband and me (went).
Similarly, Myself and John went to a party – if you wouldn’t say myself went, don’t drag John into it.
I went to the party by myself.
Simple guide: if you can say us instead, it’s my husband and me. If you can say we, it’s my husband and I.
The car nearly ran over my husband and me (us). My husband and I (we) were nearly hit by the car.
The car nearly ran over me. I was nearly hit by the car.
I am singing in the choir – but Sarah and I are singing in the choir: I am singular, but Sarah and I are plural, and could be replaced by we; and we takes are not am. If you took Sarah out of the equation you’d have to change the verb too, to reflect the change in number.
Sarah and me aren’t doing anything, because me can’t.
The boys are picking on Kevin and me. If Kevin isn’t there, they’ll still pick on me. It can never be said that the boys are picking on Kevin and I, because if Kevin isn’t there, they won’t pick on I.
Simple guide: if you aren’t sure, take out the Kevin and part and see if it makes sense.
Don’t blame me. Here, the subject of the sentence is the unseen you – what it means is, Don’t you blame me. me is the object, and that is never followed by a verb; me can never do anything – things are done to me.
Anomaly alert: Dialogue, colloquialism, or writing in character
Correctly, Who broke the window? isn’t answered by Me, but by I – because it’s verbal shorthand for I did it. However in dialogue, writing in character or colloquially, this rule can be broken with impunity. Who broke the window? It were me, ma’am – if the character doesn’t speak good or formal English. Otherwise, I did, ma’am.
(By the way – I didn’t break the window. It was him what done it, ma’am. Honest.)
Tricky little things, -ing words. Writers often use them in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons, and they can turn serious situations into farce quite unintentionally.
The -ing ending occurs in different guises.
It’s part of a verb. That’s the present participle, used in continuous tenses both past and present (I’m loving it, I was enjoying it), and also frequently used as a sort of shorthand (The men watching the cricket cheered = The men who were watching the cricket cheered.)
There’s the gerund, where what is part of a verb plays at being a noun (the first sitting for lunch; my knitting is full of holes; bread and dripping).
If you use it as a verb, the –ing word has to have a subject. Use it as a noun, and it doesn’t – it is the subject.
You cannot have a present participle without a subject.
Running to catch the bus, the street shone with rain. Who is running? Not the street. There’s no subject here.
Shining in the puddles, Mark ran for the bus. Again, the subject – Mark – doesn’t belong to the participle. He’s not shining—he’s running.
Catching his breath, Mark ran for the bus. That’s better; Mark is the subject of all the actions. But see simultaneous actions below.
Reading is good for the brain as walking is good for the body.
It’s the equivalent of saying carrots are good for the eyesight. In the first part, reading and walking are gerunds, or verbal nouns. The line does not say that ‘you are reading’ or ‘you are walking’, but that the activities of reading and walking are beneficial. No specific person is implied – it’s a general statement.
Reading and walking are good for you. Carrots and broccoli are good for you.
But Reading and walking is not recommended.
Here reading and walking have both become verbs, and the combination of the two – that single is shows they have been bound together as simultaneous actions – alters the meaning. It’s the shorthand approach I mentioned earlier: Reading a book while you are walking is not recommended (which is not to say that it’s impossible.)
Some simultaneous actions should be used with care.
Walking across the road he ran up the steps. This is a physical impossibility. He can’t walk and run at the same time. There are (presumably) no steps in the road. Walking is a continuous state; he’s got to stop walking and start running up the steps. If you add while, you’ll see it more clearly: While walking across the road he ran up the steps. Not possible. He walked across the road and ran up the steps. These are two separate actions, and therefore acceptable.
Walking across the road he took out his phone. Yes, he can walk and put his hand in his pocket for his phone at the same time.
Continuous tenses need care too.
She watched them walking together, cracking jokes, smiling at their happiness. Who is doing the joke-cracking and smiling? It’s not clear. She could be smiling at their happiness; they could be cracking jokes. Maybe she does both. The continuous verbs need subjects – we need to know who owns which action. She watched them walking together and cracking jokes, smiling at their happiness. Better: we know that they are walking and cracking jokes, but the smiling is still slightly ambiguous. Better to change it to and smiled – we have her previous action described in the past tense, so this one will match it.
Cantering up the drive he swept her into his arms, closing the door with one booted foot. Multi-tasking heroes are one thing, but impersonating a horse is quite another. Make sure you aren’t making a laughing stock of the poor man.
Apostrophes are used to show that something is missing. That’s it. No magic, nothing difficult, no reason to worry: their job is to mark a gap. They are never, ever used for plurals.
If you read, He went to speak to the dog’s, you would – and should – ask, the dog’s what? That’s how you know it’s wrong: if you can ask what? and expect an answer – the dog’s owner – then it’s not a plural, it’s a possessive. If the man went to speak to the dogs, you wouldn’t be prompted to ask what. That, which, who – you could add all of those and more, but not what.
The woodsman cut down the tree’s. The tree’s what? What part of the tree? The woodsman cut down the trees.
Keeping up with the Jones’s. The Jones’s what? Their speed-walking butler? Keeping up with the Joneses.
They are used when to be, to have and to do are shortened. We’ve grown lazy; we join the verb to the pronoun and knock out a bit from the middle for speed.
I’m, he’s, she’s – that’s elision: shunting two words together and losing a little in the process. When we speak, context explains what’s intended; on the page, the apostrophe has been invented to do the job.
It’s – ‘it is’ or ‘it has’. How do you know which is referred to? It’s in the context. It’s correct – it is correct; it’s been done correctly – it has been done correctly.
That’s, there’s – never used for that was, there was.
They’re, we’re, you’re – They are, we are, you are. Again, not used for they were, we were, you were.
I’ve, we’ve, you’ve – I have, we have, you have.
I’d, we’d, I didn’t, he hadn’t, we wouldn’t – you get the picture.
I’d could be I had, I would – I’d have had the fish if I’d known the soup would be so bad. You’d have done the same.
To recap: if you’re squashing two words into one, something has got to go – otherwise why bother? – and the apostrophe is the symbol that marks the gap and the change in sound that results.
2. They signify possessives.
The dog’s dinner. The cat’s pyjamas— the dinner of the dog, the pyjamas of the cat. What’s missing is ‘of the’, and the thing that is possessed has been moved from before the owner to after it. The sentence is shorter as a result, which is the whole point.
It doesn’t matter whether the object being possessed is singular or plural: it’s the owner’s number that governs the apostrophe.
If there were multiple dogs and cats, the apostrophe would move along a little.
The dogs’ dinner was put in their bowl; the cats’ pyjamas were stripy: the dinner of the dogs, the pyjamas of the cats. You don’t add another ‘s’ after the apostrophe: we don’t say the dogs’s dinner.
The dogs’ dinners were put in their bowls – the dinners of the dogs. The cats’ pyjamas – doesn’t change, because pyjamas is a plural noun (though the cats’ pyjama trousers).
The child’s toys – the toys of the child.
The children’s toys – the toys of the children. It would be wrong to write ‘the childrens’ toys, because you wouldn’t say the toys of the childrens. What happens before the apostrophe has to be able to stand as a word in its own right. The children’s rocking horse – the rocking horse that is shared by the various children.
The woman’s car – the car of/belonging to the woman.
The women’s car – the car of the women.
The women’s cars – the cars of the women.
2A (for Anomalies)
Its own right: here is a possessive that doesn’t take an apostrophe; if it did, it would be the same as it’s, which it isn’t. The same applies to hers, ours, yours and theirs – these possessive pronouns have come to be complete on their own.
3 Individually and collectively
The sister and brother’s cats; the sister’s and brother’s cats. The first says that the cats belong to both the sister and the brother; the second says that the sister and the brother each have cats, but they’re not under shared ownership.
The sisters’ and brothers’ cats – the cats belonging to the sisters and the cats belonging to the brothers; the sisters and brothers’ cats – the cats belonging jointly to the sisters and brothers.
My sister’s cat’s pyjamas — the pyjamas of the cat owned by my sister.
Shakespeare’s comedies; Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s comedies – not Chaucer and Shakespeare’s comedies, because they didn’t co-write them; they didn’t share ownership.
The King’s daughter, but the King of Spain’s daughter – the first is the daughter of the King, the second specifically the daughter of the King of Spain.
If the singular noun ends in s, it’s pretty much up to your ear to say how you use the apostrophe:
Rabies’ effects are disastrous, not rabies’s effects.
The scissors’ handles, not the scissors’s handles, nor the scissor’s handles
The bus’s brakes didn’t work – you would say it, so punctuate it that way.
Apostrophes crop up in other places too.
Let’s – an elision of let us in common speech.
Can’t, didn’t, won’t, wouldn’t – contraction of cannot, did not, will not, would not.
One o’clock – one of the clock, an archaic way of telling the time which we still use but without knowing it, because the contraction has replaced the original phrase and become the norm.
He OD’d on heroine. When an abbreviation is being used as a verb, you don’t write he ODed, or OD’ed, which would sound wrong if you pronounced it: odeeded. You’d say he odeed – so OD’d.
6. To recap: Never use it in a plural: and if you see one, ask it what it’s doing there.
When people talk, they don’t always finish their sentences. They can be interrupted, or they may tail off into uncertainty; they may speak for ages, or in short bursts. We’ve seen how punctuation can change the sound of a piece of dialogue, so now let’s have a look at other ways to use it to good effect.
Pauses and Interruptions
“What if what?”
“What if I can’t think what to say next?”
“Then use an ellipsis.”
“What’s one of those?”
“It’s a sequence of three dots – no more, no less – to show that you’ve trailed off.”
“Why not use a dash?”
“Because a dash is used to show that you’ve been interrupted. If I were to start speaking and—“
“—and I jumped in, just like that?”
“Exactly. That would require a dash.”
The difference between an ellipsis and a dash is clear: one sentence fades, while the other breaks off.
I could have the interrupter opening with a capital and no dash: “And I jumped in, just like that?” It would be perfectly correct; but I’ve written it to show the speaker finishing the other’s sentence for him. If he were saying something different, he would need a capital.
“Because a dash is used to show that you’ve been interrupted. If I were to start speaking and—“
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, get on with it!”
That’s a new sentence, not a direct extension of the previous speaker’s words, so takes a capital.
If you have a character making an extended speech, one long chunk of text is off-putting; you need to break it up, but the punctuation has to show that it’s all in the one person’s words.
“The answer is that you have no closing inverted commas at the end of a paragraph, but you do use openers at the start of each new one, as shown here.
“That way it’s clear that the person is still speaking, simply because the reader hasn’t been told that she has stopped. The second opening set of inverted commas denotes continuation.
“The only time you close inverted commas is when she finishes speaking.” She pauses to take a sip of tea. “That’s a case in point. She’s still speaking now; but for a moment there she shuts up.”
I read a short story recently, which consisted of a conversation between two people. No-one else entered the scene at all. It was completely unnecessary, therefore, for the writer to go to great lengths to tell me every single time who was speaking. ‘Amy said, Dora nodded, Amy sighed, Dora twitched, Amy laughed, Dora fiddled with her cup…’ Why?
In a short story you have a limited number of words, and every one is precious. The author could have written an entire extra paragraph with what was saved by deleting all these pointless directions.
If you have two people talking, the sequence – if you have used your line spacing correctly – will be enough to tell who is speaking. If Amy has line one, and Dora has line two, then Amy has line three, and so on, unless something happens to change that. In that case you tell the reader what he needs to know, and go on as before. Don’t use movements as an excuse, either – it’s the same thing in disguise. If your character needs to scratch, fine; just don’t employ it as a desperate alternative to ‘she said’.
One last point:
All punctuation relating to the speech itself goes inside the inverted commas.
“If I write a line of dialogue”, she said, “surely the full stop refers to the whole sentence including the insertion, so it should go outside the speech marks”. Wrong – both meaning and punctuation. It should be as follows:
“If I write a line of dialogue,” she said, “surely the full stop refers to the whole sentence including the insertion, so it should go after the speech marks.” Meaning still wrong, but correctly punctuated.
The comma after ‘dialogue’ marks a pause in the speech, and so belongs to it, not to ‘she said’: it goes inside the inverted commas.
The inserted words ‘she said’ have their moment of glory with their own comma; they don’t get the full stop too. If I were to leave out ‘she said’ the speech would read as a single sentence, complete with its full stop, all inside the marks that point out that it is in fact dialogue.
It’s all quite logical really. Honest…