A Sterne Lesson
Those of you who are our Facebook friends (Lantern Book)—and if you're not, for goodness' sake what are you waiting for?!—will have seen my screed regarding the confusion about when to use "everyday" and "every day." A correspondent expressed her relief at seeing the light and then asked—perspiration mantling her brow—about dashes. Well, since you happen to ask. . . .
Just to freak you out, there are three
kinds of dashes with which I'm familiar. There's your hyphen, which joins two words (usually adjectives) together in holy matrimony, or separates an awkward prefix from the noun, as in "re-occurrence."
Then there's the en-dash, which is used in several ways:
- to join multiple word–phrases (as in "World War II–era music") where one of the joined word-phrases is being used as a compound adjective, and you want to know which bit of the phrase goes with which;
- to notate dates or places, without "from" or "to": as in "World War II (1939–1945) or "Berlin–Baghdad Railway";
- to indicate an adversarial or non-compound connection between two nouns: i.e. "Ali–Freeman rematch" or "Franco–Prussian War." (I like this usage because it reminds me that no such people as the Franco-Prussians exist.)
The final dash is the em-dash—the long one, the one you once had to signify by hitting two hyphens on your typewriter keyboard.
So, when to use the em-dash? Well, some people like 'em—I'm one of them—and some find them intrusive, preferring to hand the duty to a comma or let the (admittedly somewhat clumsy) parenthesis do the job. Of course, the dash also sometimes colonizes the colon's territory as it brings the sentence to a rousing conclusion—like this! Othertimes, it eases itself into the ellipsis' place, to allow the sentence to tail off—well, let's just leave it at that, shall we?
Over the years, I've come to view the dash as something to be used more sparingly than not. If you're using too many dashes, and commas, parentheses, and ellipses just become confusing (as they can . . . ), then just stop. End the sentence. It's okay to write short sentences. Brevity sometimes really is the soul of wit.
One final piece of encouragement: All this anxiety about punctuation is a relatively recent phenomenon in literature. Laurence Sterne
marshaled a riotous army of promiscuous dashes, random semi-colons, spotty periods, and madcap commas to conquer the first paragraph of his 1759 masterpiece, Tristram Shandy
—a book that broke the mold of the novel before there was a mold. Here it is for your astonishment and (perhaps) relief:
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.—Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it;—you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.—and a great deal to that purpose:—Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man's sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, 'tis not a half-penny matter,—away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.