Tag Archives: Punctuation

En dashes – from where?

For years I wondered why so many writers and publishers were choosing to use en dashes (which are the width of a capital N) where em dashes (yes, the width of a capital M) used to be standard.

Em dashes have long been used to separate phrases and clauses—groups of words that contain a subject and a verb but aren’t written as an independent sentence. The dash in the previous sentence between the words clauses and groups is an em dash.

En dashes were normally used to separate a range of numbers (such as 50–100) or to join a compound word to another word or words (such as New York–Chicago).

In typing class, back in the (ulp) 1960s, we used two hyphens in place of em dashes–because typewriters didn’t have em dashes.

Microsoft Word has a feature called “Autoformat as you type,” and one of the choices under “Replace as you type” is “Hyphens (–) with dash (–).” (I don’t use it because I do a lot of HTML formatting in Word, and replacing double hyphens with dashes will ruin some of the code.) But if you use this feature (and I believe it’s turned on by default) and if you type two words with two hyphens between them, Word will replace the two hyphens with an em dash. What the “Replace as you type” menu doesn’t tell you, and what I didn’t learn until this month (September 2016) is that if you type a space, a hyphen, and another space, Word will turn the hyphen into an en dash, as illustrated in the title of this blog post.

My guess is that a lot of writers and publishers have not been choosing to use an en dash in place of an em dash. My guess is that a lot of writers don’t know one kind of dash from the other but have been typing space, hyphen, space where they wanted a dash, and Microsoft Word supplied one, and the publishers left it as written, or, to be precise, as typed by the author and as modified by Microsoft Word.

My solution when editing in Microsoft Word is to search for en dashes with space before and after them (in the Find menu, enter a space, then alt+0150, then another space) and change them to em dashes without space if that’s appropriate or to en dashes without space if that’s what they should be.

Cities, states, and commas

A state name paired with a city name “is in effect a parenthetical element,” states Words Into Type. It makes the “preceding reference more specific.” The state name needs to be set off with commas. The Chicago Manual of Style gives similar instruction.

Yet a lot of writers and even some editors set off the state name with only one comma. This can lead to confusion, making the meaning of a sentence hard to comprehend.

This sentence looks like a strange series: “Only Lake City and Tallahassee, Florida and Biloxi, Mississippi have bus stations located downtown.”* It looks like three elements: (1) Lake City and Tallahassee, (2) Florida and Biloxi, and (3) Mississippi. that’s how the commas separate the names. Adding commas after Florida and Mississippi would help: “Only Lake City and Tallahassee, Florida, and Biloxi, Mississippi, have bus stations located downtown.” (By the way, “only” referred to stops between New Orleans and Jacksonville formerly served by Amtrak and currently served by intercity buses.) We could insert those commas and consider the sentence adequately edited; the context indicates which items have stations (the cities, not the states).

However, I still wouldn’t be completely happy with it. The context doesn’t come until the end of the sentence. Reordering the sentence would be one solution: “The only downtown bus stations are in Lake City and Tallahassee, Florida, and Biloxi, Mississippi.” We could also follow the rule that when a series comprises items that themselves contain commas, the items should be set off with semicolons: “The only downtown bus stations are in Lake City and Tallahassee, Florida; and Biloxi, Mississippi.” To me, that semicolon in the middle of the sentence looks funny. William Safire, longtime writer of the New York Times Magazine “On Language” column, advised getting rid of anything that looks funny.

We could put the abbreviated state names after each city and set them off with semicolons: “Only Lake City, Fla.; Tallahassee, Fla.; and Biloxi, Miss.; have bus stations located downtown.” I’d consider that satisfactory if kind of heavily puncuated.

For this sentence, parentheses might work well for setting off the state names: “Only Lake City and Tallahassee (Florida) and Biloxi (Mississippi) have bus stations located downtown.” Still, the proximity of (Florida) to Tallahassee might not clearly communicate that Lake City is also in Florida.

My final choice would be to use parentheses and add a few words: “Only Lake City and Tallahassee (both in Florida) and Biloxi (in Mississippi) have bus stations located downtown.” I think that’s clear and reads smoothly.

Can you offer a better solution? If so, please post a comment.

* David Peter Alan, “Is Amtrak Coming Back to the Gulf Coast? Bus Service in the Gulf Coast Region Is Weak,” National Corridors Initiative Destination Freedom, April 18, 2016.

The Oxford comma fault*

“What the internet desperately needs is another blog post about the Oxford comma,” wrote Tom Freeman on his blog, “The Stroppy Editor.”

Well, I, at least, needed it. “We have to face the awful truth,” wrote Freeman: “the Oxford comma is not a magical blade that can chop any sentence into slices of perfect meaning. It’s just one fallible tool among many.” I did think that the Oxford comma (also known as the Harvard comma or, without any ivy, the serial comma) is a magical blade for chopping away ambiguity.

Years ago, some ingenious editor came up with an example that shows how far the meaning can go astray without the magical Oxford comma:

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Without the comma, Ayn Rand and God can be read as a nonrestrictive appositive (having the same meaning as the noun they follow) rather than the last two items in a series of three—suggesting that the writer’s parents are Ayn Rand and God.

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

Insert an Oxford comma after Rand and it chops the words into slices of perfect meaning. But the Oxford comma sometimes “creates the very ambiguity or absurdity that it’s supposed to remove,” wrote Freeman, and he used an alternative version of the same example to prove his point:

This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand and God.

That sentence is clear enough without the Oxford comma. In fact, adding the comma makes it ambiguous: it could be a series, or Ayn Rand could be a nonrestrictive appositive for mother (my mother = Ayn Rand):

This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.

So I endorse Freeman’s advice concerning the Oxford comma: “Use it when you must, avoid it when you must, choose as you prefer (or as your readers will prefer) when you can, and rewrite whenever that would be better.”


* This title is a pun. The punctuation error known as the comma fault or comma splice is to separate two independent clauses with a comma rather than with a semicolon or period.

Accentuate the appositive

What’s an appositive? I thought I knew. I should know.

In my Editor’s Companion book I wrote:

“Commas are used to set off appositives and nonrestrictive clauses and phrases … In ‘Boston, the largest city in Massachusetts, was our home,’ ‘the largest city in Massachusetts’ is an appositive. ‘Boston’ and ‘the largest city in Massachusetts’ mean the same thing: ‘Boston was our home’ means the same thing as ‘The largest city in Massachusetts was our home.’”

So far, so good. But I stated, “Appositives are a particular type of nonrestrictive phrase.’” Wrong. Appositives can be restrictive or nonrestrictive. In the example above, the largest city in Massachusetts is indeed a nonrestrictive appositive.

“Have you been to the hamlet Florida in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts?” In that sentence the word Florida is an appositive too: a restrictive appositive. The hamlet doesn’t refer to Florida unless you provide that information by adding the word Florida, and Florida doesn’t necessarily denote a hamlet in the Berkshires.

Bonnie Trenga, in a guest appearance on the Grammar Girl website, explained that “an appositive is … a noun or a noun phrase that is placed next to another noun or noun phrase to help identify it.” It’s nonrestrictive if it gives extra information, and it’s restrictive if it adds essential information. “The rule for appositives is that if the information is essential, you don’t use commas. If it is extra, you use extra commas.”

That’s the same rule we follow for restrictive and nonrestrictive phrases (also called essential and nonessential phrases).

The idea is simple, but it’s kind of complicated to explain. And maybe we could use a simpler word than the four-syllable appositive. How about noun buddy?