Once again, I return to abusing that humble religious leaflet I found on the subway. Last time, I talked about the acceptable uses for semicolons. This time, you and I need to have a frank discussion about dashes. Here are two samples of dash disasters from There yet can be hope for you:

  • But friend - it need not be so!
  • Yes, He does - no matter how far down you’ve sunk in despair. God does care! And - God CAN help.

Before pulling apart these sentences, perhaps I should begin by sharing a rather recent revelation I had: there are several kinds of dashes, each of which has a specific grammatical function. If you didn’t know about the speciation of dashes, I won’t nail you to a tree. But enough about you. Let’s talk more about me.

When I attended school on Cape Cod and Boylston, MA in the late Permian era, dashes were talked about in nervous and dismissive tones, in much the same way “foreign” places like New York City and L.A. were referrenced. The mercurial nature of dashes, marks which I erronously equated with hyphens, beguiles even the best of us at times. Only wizened typesetters know the entire breadth of dash-lore and they aren’t talking.

However, I can confidently say that dashes are used properly in the following ways:

  • to continue words onto another line;
  • to interrupt the main idea of a sentence;
  • and to make compound adjectives that avoid ambiguity.

That doesn’t sound too tricky, right? The problem is that each kind of dash of varies only a tiny bit in length, but each has a specific use.

OK, let’s meet the players.

Name Punctuation Purpose
em dash The most common dash, used for interruptions or to add emphasis to clauses in a sentence. Can be used to denote an explanation, like a colon. Can be used to tie complex subjects to a summerizing clause. No more than one dash pair per sentence, please.
en dash Half the length of the common dash but longer than the hyphen, en dashes denote number ranges (e.g. 1971–2006, pp. 69–96, etc.). Also use this mark when compounding multi-word adjectives (e.g. New York-London flights).
hyphen - Use this guy when breaking a word across lines, hyphenating compound words and connecting non-inclusive numbers (i.e. phone numbers, social security numbers, ISBNs, etc.).

Note that there are variants of the em dash and en dash which are longer that have pretty obscure usages, like indicating missing letters in a word, missing words in a manuscript or immitating Gothic short stories by Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany.

Also note that only professional publications differentiate between dashes. For your high school and undergraduate English essays, don’t get too worked up about this. You’ll only freakify your teacher, who will want to change all your em dashes into two hyphens.

Now that we’ve had a small dose of grammatical viagra, let’s have a look at the first example from the leaflet again. The dash here is used to indicate a small pause and perhaps to add emphasis to the independent clause. I can’t think of a defense for using any kind of dash here when a comma so naturally fits. Dig it:

But friend, it need not be so!

The comma, so familiar that it becomes nearly invisible, reassures the reader that the author is no half-crazed Jesus-freak, but a thoughtful theologian in the spirit of Thomas Aquinas.

Whatever equanimity would be gained from such an edit would be quickly dispelled by the train wreck that is the second example, which follows:

Yes, He does - no matter how far down you’ve sunk in despair. God does care! And - God CAN help.

Once again, the first dash ought to be replaced, but with what? The Spirit strongly moves me to put a period after “does.” Not only does that eliminate the off-putting dash, it makes a dramatic, punchy opener — which is, after all, the whole point of a dodgy religious leaflet.

Of course, ending the sentence on “does” creates an incomplete fragment of the rest of the sentence. Fortunately, what’s left would make an excellent complement to this fragment and create a punchy follow up to the brutal opening. And all that needs be done is capitalize the n in “no” and change the period to a comma. Pappy like!

We’re almost out of the woods now. This last sentence is a bit tricky. The safest edit to bring this little guy into compliance with mainstream American English is to simply eliminate the dash and be done with it. It’s true that some prescriptivist donkeys will bray over starting a sentence with a conjunction, but this is simply the ululation of a dying breed. The bigger issue is one of music, which is far from an easy thing to standardize. The author clearly wants a dramatic pause before the punchy final clause. What to do?

If you refer to the table above, you’ll note that the em dash can be used like a colon to introduce an explanation or summarizing clause. I think that given the needs of the music of the prose, an em dash is a justifiable choice here as the last clause seems like some kind of explanation to me. Surely, there are those that will disagree with this reading and choice. They should feel free to discourse prodigiously about their dissent elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Here are my edits to the second example:

Yes, He does. No matter how far down you’ve sunk in despair, God does care! And God can help.

Next time, I’ll move from grammatical kibitzing to prose jockeying as I tangle with mysterious words, uncomfortable informalities and the Last Temptation of Capitalization. I may even scan in the original leaflet.

Peace out, yo.