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Test Your Mettle

Can you refer me to your favorite online copy editing test? I may have an in-person editing test for a new job next week, and I think I’ve developed some bad habits after seven years with the same company. I’d like to give my brain a workout beforehand. Thanks!


Well, I can’t really refer you to any one online editing test that I know is reliable, but I can help. Every editing test I’ve ever taken has been job-specific, and I’ve never been in charge of hiring other editors, so there’s not a particular test that I know is really useful. After some basic googling, I think these might be a good place to start: Dow Jones editing tests (including answers), this little digital quiz with an error density similar to some tests I’ve taken, and an advanced-level test from the Subversive Copy Editor, Carol Fisher Saller (answers in the following blog post).

But I haven’t taken all those quizzes, and they’re certainly not all applicable to every job. So I have another, more practical tip for you, which is that you can easily test and practice your editing skills without an editing test. It doesn’t come with an answer sheet, sure, but then neither does actual copy editing work, so you should be used to that.

I recommended this technique in the “How to Learn a Style Guide in 10 Days” presentation I gave at ACES this spring. All you have to do is find some unedited text—say, a blog post or a press release—get out whatever style guide, dictionary, and other reference tools your would-be employer uses, and edit it just the way you would if it came across your desk a month from now at your new job.

The trick, of course, is to look up every. single. thing. Don’t treat it like something for your current publication, where you’ve already learned the ropes; pretend you’re trying to impress a new employer and make yourself to question all your assumptions. This will help you get up to speed on the new publication’s style guide while hopefully also rooting out a few of those tricky “rules” whose provenance you’ve forgotten and that may turn out to be baseless.

This method has two advantages over just taking traditional copy editing tests. The first is that you should be able to find unedited copy that covers the same subject as the publication you hope to work for does, so the words and rules you wind up learning or relearning are the ones most likely to be relevant. The second is that it’s going to be much more effective at breaking you out of old habits than a traditional copy editing test. You’ll be exposed to a wider range of editors, and without the safety net of an answer sheet, you’re forced to become a much more critical reviewer of your own work, which should help you absorb lessons faster.

Best of luck at your interview, Brian! Let me know how it works out.

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The Turn of the Screw

It’s Halloween! And I’m reading The Haunting of Hill House, which I’m enjoying much more than another “classic” ghost story everyone trots out at this time of year: The Turn of the Screw.

If you followed the #19thCenturySpoilers discussion on Twitter some months back (which I hope you did; it was basically my favorite thing ever to happen on the internet) you may already have learned that I am not very fond of Henry James. Some of the things I tweeted about him (uh, spoiler alert, I guess):

  • Daisy gets malaria and dies. Winterbourne is a shithead no matter what Daisy did. #19thcenturyspoilers #DaisyMiller #FuckHenryJames
  • The kid dies and there’s no resolution. #19thcenturyspoilers #TurnOfTheScrew #FuckHenryJames
  • The beast in the jungle is his fear of the beast in the jungle. #19thcenturyspoilers #BeastInTheJungle #FuckHenryJames #ForReal #HeSucks

So! Mr. James and I: not BFF, you could say. He has problems with brevity, clarity, and women. Or, to be slightly more blunt, he writes like “a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost… upon picking up a pea that has got into the corner of its den” (line stolen from H.G. Wells, my new hero), and his much-vaunted characters are always either hysterical nincompoops (women) or self-absorbed douchebags (men).

So it’s probably no surprise that I tried to read The Turn of the Screw at least 5 times before I managed to finish it. And now I’m pretty sure I can parody it in fewer words than it would take James to describe an unremarkable breakfast:

This dude and some friends are sitting around a fire trading gossip or something, whatever they did back before there was TV. And this dude goes, “I know a story that’ll scare your britches off.

“Once upon a time I was totally in love with this governess, whom I didn’t marry for reasons unspecified, but which is supposed to make me sympathetic. And before she died she wrote down this story for me.”

Governess: “Once upon a time I interviewed for a job with this extremely creepy but super handsome guy. And he was like, ‘I would like you to come to my remote house, which the townspeople fear and which I will never inhabit, and take care of my niece and nephew. Who, by the way, creep me the hell out. Also, their last governess died.’ And obvs. I accepted this job, because he was handsome and bitches be crazy.

“So I show up at Creepington Manor and the housekeeper is like, ‘Thank god he found another sucker to take care of those creepy kids. P.S. Mind the ghosts.’ And I’m like, ‘I am totally up for whatever weirdness happens in the house of handsome Mr. Handsome, who will probably marry me later, I read Jane Eyre, I know how this works.

“And then I heard weird noises in the hallway at night, and saw a dude on the parapet, and a dead governess on the stairs, and then a dead dude on the stairs, and a guy staring at me and the kids in the woods. But nobody else sees these people, duh, and the housekeeper is like, ‘Probably a trick of your eyes but bee tee dubs it sounds like your mystery dude looks like our dead valet, weird coincidence, right?’ And I was like, ‘Well that’s pretty messed up, but whatever, I definitely won’t write to hunky Mr. Handsome about this in case it’s a test of my love and also because bitches be crazy.’

“And then the kids start going all Children of the Corn on me, staring at nothing and getting mad at me for interfering with their plans to have a chat with a freakin’ ghost in the woods in the middle of the night. I know, I’m such a hardass, right?

“Anyway, I made up my mind to leave, but then I walked into the schoolroom and saw the dead governess again, which I took as a good sign and decided to stay because, say it with me, bitches be crazy.

“So the next day we see the girl kid, the creepier one, having a little tête-à-tête by the lake with the ghost of the dead governess, and the housekeeper finally agrees that the kid is too creepy even for Creepington Manor, and bundles her off to gorgeous Mr. Handsome’s house.

“Now it’s just me and the boy—who is still pretty creepy, I don’t want to sell him short here—hanging out in big, empty Creepington Manor. And the two of us are having a little talk about how he’s undermining me and intercepting the call for help I finally agreed to send when I see the dead valet outside the window again. So I says to the kid, I says, ‘Hey, kid, do you see the dead guy too?’

“And after a couple months of nonstop ghost parties you think this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but the kid goes, ‘AAAAH!’ and just falls dead in my arms.

“So of course I got fired.”

And the moral of this story is: Bitches be crazy?

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Friday Fun

We’ve been short-staffed at the office for a few weeks, so I’ve been up to my eyeballs in work and thus not posting. I hope to be back at full strength next week, assuming Hurricane Sandy doesn’t knock out my precious, precious internet. In the meantime, let’s celebrate the long-awaited weekend with a few fun things I found on the internet lately.

First, speaking of the Frankenstorm, Emma Span makes a valuable PSA:

Just a small, useless reminder that Frankenstein was the doctor, not the monster. #FrankenstormsMonster

Next, you say you’re sick of “Call Me Maybe” parodies, but have you seen “Call Me Ishmael”?

Sample lyrics:

Hey, I just met you
And you look crazy
But there’s a white whale
So call me Ishmael

It’s hard to harpoon
Cetaceans matey,
But there’s a white whale
So call me Ishmael.

But if you like your Moby-Dick a little less irreverent, did you know you can download free recordings of celebrities reading a chapter each? It’s called the Moby Dick Big Read, and it’s publishing a chapter a day for 135 days. I subscribed to the podcast, and I’m hoping this is the thing that will finally get me to tackle a classic that I’ve been avoiding for years. Although I have to admit that what really sold me is that John Waters reads the chapter on the whale’s, uh, willy. Hey, I only said that it was a little less irreverent.

Finally, dig this darkly funny, Halloweeny video from a band I’ve really been enjoying lately:


Like, Literally Literally

About a month ago, XKCD posted this comic:

But then the Ghost of Subjunctive Past showed up and told me to stay strong on "if it were."

And I laughed! And I totally agreed! …Sort of.

So here’s the thing. The figurative use of literally—when people use it as an intensifier but don’t mean that something happened exactly as they’re describing it—does not make one whit of real difference to the world, just as this comic points out. No one is ever going to think you mean it literally when you say, for example, “he literally blew his top.” There aren’t that many situations where whatever you’re saying could be meant figuratively or literally and lead to confusion. And even when it does happen, well, so what? It happens with a million other English words that have more than one meaning. We’ve all survived this long with a couple dozen meanings for set, so we’ll soldier on even if there’s one more meaning for literally.

My girlfriend takes two-hour showers. Literally, two hours.But at the same time, I think it’s useful to reserve literally for when you mean something is 100% actually true. It might not be necessary, but it’s useful. Earlier this week I ran into this real-life use at right, in a front-page tease for Slate’s Dear Prudence column. If you read the column, the letter writer says, “Once or twice a week [my girlfriend will] retreat to the bathroom and take a ‘shower’ for an hour or two. Like literally 120 minutes.”

Cases like this are when you start to wish that the older meaning of literally had not been muddled by the newer usage. The thing being describe is extreme enough that it could be mild hyperbole, or it could be totally real (if wacky). In this case, it’s totally real, which both the letter writer and whoever wrote the tease signified to the reader by not just adding literally, but also by repeating or restating the information in question. If it weren’t acceptable to use literally as an intensifier, they could each simply add literally to the sentence and you’d know exactly what they meant without their restating it.

This repeating method certainly works, the same way saying, “No, she like-likes him!” works—it’s clear, but clunky. But then again, this isn’t exactly a huge burden to impose on the language. So while I’d prefer to restrict literally to non-figurative uses, I am most definitely never going to correct anyone in conversation or even causal writing. Because seriously, that is duuuuuuuuumb.

But there’s a difference between me and the guy who writes XKCD. When the people who write the rulebooks are trying to determine whether this usage has become acceptable in all registers of writing, they certainly consider things like webcomics and self-published work, but they put a lot of weight on edited writing, and I’m an editor. So if I decide to let that go in articles I edit, I’m hastening the arrival of that day in the third panel—that’s exactly the same except maybe people say literally slightly more often.

OK, big whoop, I admit it. One more useful distinction lost, but no real harm done. I guess I’m just kind of hoping it’s fad, and if I refuse to accept it long enough it’ll go away. But it’s already in Webster’s, so I think I’m only fooling myself.

Well, I’ll be clinging to a single-definition literally in print for a bit longer, but that doesn’t mean you should go around correcting your friends in the meantime. They’ll think you’re the biggest jerk in the world. Literally.


See Me After Class

Look, I try to be a nice curmudgeon, and I don’t normally get all outraged over people’s little mistakes. These things usually don’t really matter, in even the medium-size scheme of things, and besides, everyone is ignorant about something and everyone makes mistakes. But this, this chaps my hide.

I use postsecrets.com to teach my 11th graders spelling & syntax; we correct your secrets.

This was posted to Postsecret on Sunday, and there are a few things I could argue with here, but I’m really only interested in one. I am not going to knock this teacher for the incorrect URL, which is probably just the handwritten equivalent of a typo, nor for the semicolon after “syntax,” though I would use a colon or an em dash—it’s not strictly wrong, so I’ll chalk it up to writer’s choice. I will also ignore that the writer of the original postcard is being marked down for using all caps and not making a complete sentence out of “Sorry,” although those things are perfectly acceptable in context. I’m guessing the assignment is to mark up the cards as if they’d been turned in as part of a school assignment, and in that case the corrections are strict but not out-of-bounds.

No, what set me off is the mark after “baked good”—can you see it? The teacher crossed out the writer’s em dash and put in—gasp—a semicolon. The teacher is right about the dash; it is incorrect.* But a semicolon is most definitely not an acceptable replacement.

Let’s look at the original writer’s sentence: “If you come into the bakery with a sugary coffee drink and buy a sugary baked good—I judge you.” The teacher saw that everything after the dash could stand as a sentence on its own and thought, “Independent clause! Semicolon!” But remember, a semicolon joins two independent clauses, and the first half of that sentence is a conditional clause, not independent at all. Independent clauses are the easiest to spot because you just isolate them and see if they still make sense as a sentence. Watch: “If you come into the bakery with a sugary coffee drink and buy a sugary baked good.” Clearly that sentence isn’t over, so that clause is definitely not independent.

Normally I’d give this person a pass—as I said above, no one knows everything, and everyone makes mistakes. But in this case it does matter, very much, because this person is a teacher. This person has a room full of 16- and 17-year-olds who are trustingly absorbing their views on the semicolon, and who are going to confidently and incorrectly deploy that punctuation mark in college applications, résumés, and, worst of all, articles that I may have to edit one day. It’s worse than teaching them nothing about the topic. Someone who knows they know nothing is (usually) easy to teach and happy to learn. Someone who thinks they know something is impossible. Telling them they need to be re-taught something sounds, to them, like, “You’ve embarrassed yourself by doing this wrong for years and everything your beloved authority figure told you is a lie.” They get as defensive as if you’d insulted them, their hometown, their upbringing, their whole way of life. That’s why wacky and completely bogus “rules” like “never split an infinitive” hang on. There’s no basis for them, but acknowledging that they’re incorrect feels like betrayal.

Which is not to say that teachers have to know everything. Of course they don’t. But I do wish they’d ask when they’re unsure of something like this. So teachers, I don’t know you, and this is crazy, but here’s my website, so write me, maybe?

*All they needed was a comma.


Semicolon vs. Colon

You talked about separating independent clauses with semicolons, but when would you use a colon to separate independent clauses instead? Are the uses completely different, or does the author get a choice?


That’s an interesting question. When a semicolon joins two independent clauses, it’s basically saying, “Here are two equally important bits of information that are part of the same thought.” It’s being a little coy about the exact relationship between those clauses. Sometimes you can replace it with a comma and a conjunction, but in that case it’s up to the reader to infer what the conjunction would be. Sometimes, as in the final example I gave in my semicolon post—”Happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember”—there’s no way to replace the semicolon with any linking words while preserving the sense and meaning.

A colon between two independent clauses, on the other hand, can usually be replaced with something like “that is” or “because” with no real harm done. That’s because the colon, when used like this, is meant to explain, restate, or illustrate what came before, which means you usually have the option of turning it into a subordinate clause.

Here’s a couple of examples:

The insurance company declared the car totaled: Repairs would cost more than the car was worth.
The insurance company declared the car totaled, that is, repairs would cost more than the car was worth.

The dodo was utterly alone: It was the last of its kind.
The dodo was utterly alone because it was the last of its kind.

You can’t really use a semicolon in these sentences because you lose what the colon is signaling: that the second phrase is clarifying the first in some way. Two independent clauses linked by a semicolon could be related in a number of ways, but the colon is much more specific and therefore not usually interchangeable.

However! Every so often you might run into a sentence where either could work:

A famished Johnny tucked into the long pork eagerly: He assumed the phrase referred to some new breed of pig.
A famished Johnny tucked into the long pork eagerly; he assumed the phrase referred to some new breed of pig.

I think the colon is the best option here, but if this sentence came across my desk with the semicolon, I’m not sure I’d change it.

If you think either could work but you’re genuinely not sure which is best, you may be able to avoid the question altogether with a handy-dandy em dash.

Bonus advice: If the phrase after the colon could stand as a complete sentence on its own, many American sources recommend capitalizing the first letter after the colon. If the phrase that follows the colon is not an independent clause, however, the first letter should always be lowercase.


Fixing What Ain’t Broke

I talked a little bit last week about how a copy editor’s job is not as much about commas and grammar mistakes as you might think, or how they’re at least lower on the priority list than is commonly assumed. This week I want to tell you about something I do do that you might not think I would: I fix what ain’t broke.

Copy editors are usually assumed to have a light touch—and we do… sometimes—and fix pretty much only things that are truly errors. But actually, one of the most valuable services we provide is to look at the text through a reader’s eyes and fix things that, while perfectly grammatically correct, are just plain confusing.

For example, here are a few things I changed in just the last two weeks that are wrong without being wrong.

The problem: “Employees can use handheld devices to check customers out in store aisles.”
The fix: “Employees can use handheld devices to ring up customers in store aisles.”
(Note: This solution will not work in England, where “to ring up” also means “to call.”)

There’s nothing wrong with the phrase to check out, meaning to pay for purchases, and I’ve even heard it used transitively (to check someone out) in conversation without any misunderstanding. But in print, without the inflections of speech, it suddenly takes a lascivious turn when you have employees checking people out in the bathing suit aisle. Ring up preserves the idiomatic nature of the sentence but eliminates any confusion, at least for U.S. audiences.

The problem: “Theme park designers strive to recreate the fictional world in every detail.”
The fix: “Theme park designers strive to re-create the fictional world in every detail.”

Context implies that the verb recreate here is supposed to mean that designers are replicating things, not relaxing on them, but recreate does exist as the verb form of recreation. And since the topic is a theme park, it’s totally possible that some readers will think that’s what the writer is talking about at first. A hyphen makes it so there’s only one way to read the verb, but doesn’t alter the writer’s language.

The problem: “CFO so-and-so has done X, Y, and Z since he joined the social network three years ago.”
The fix: “So-and-so has done X, Y, and Z since he became the social network’s CFO three years ago.”

Like everything else here, there’s nothing nominally wrong with this construction, using joined to mean someone began their employment at a company. We use it all the time. But usually when we say someone “joined a social network,” we mean they signed up for it as a user. To avoid confusion, I rephrased the sentence.

The problem: “Subjects in the experiment were shown series of images.”
The fix: “Subjects in the experiment were shown sequences of images.”

Initially, you might think that this is just a straight-up error, that it should say “shown a series of images.” But in fact the problem here is simply that the word series is the same in both the singular and the plural. Subjects saw more than one set of images. Sequences is a near synonym, but recognizably plural.

It’s impossible, I think, for writers to see some of these problems. They know what they mean to say, which makes it hard to see if any other interpretations exist. After all, they’ve written a grammatically correct sentence that does communicate their meaning. It’s just that it can also contribute another, unintended meaning. Even content editors often have their heads too full of questions about the structure and focus of a story to notice these little problems. And that’s exactly why any good publication needs copy editors. We’re here to notice these little ambiguities, and to find a way to repair them that maintains the writer’s intent while clearing up the reader’s confusion.


What Has the Semicolon Done for Us Lately?

Considering that sentences can be separated with semicolons, what’s good will it do the piece of writing? Will it make the sentence sound more sophisticated as compared to using a comma and a coordinating conjunction?

Chad the Velociwritetor

First, for those who don’t know, let me back up a couple steps.

When you have a part of a sentence that could stand on its own as a separate sentence, that’s called an independent clause. Like this: “We went to the store, and then we got stoned and played Nintendo ‘Duck Hunt’ for six hours.” The phrases on either side of the comma are each independent clauses. You’re not usually supposed to join two independent clauses with just a comma; when you do, that’s called a comma splice. So the solution is either to join them with a comma and a conjunction, like I did in my sample sentence, or with a semicolon, like I did in the sentence before this one. You can also split them into two separate sentences, which is grammatically sound, but hey, if you wanted them to be separate sentences, you’d have written them that way to begin with, right?

So Chad is asking, basically, why we should ever bother using a semicolon when joining two independent clauses. (We are setting aside, for the moment, other uses for the semicolon, including in lists and winky faces.) I suppose some people will think that sentences containing a correctly used semicolon seem a bit more sophisticated (or snobby)—the writer, it seems, is showing off their ability to use a relatively uncommon punctuation mark whose use is often not properly explained in schools. Those people are mistaken. A semicolon is a tool, like all other punctuation marks, and useful to both the reader and writer; it’s not some kind of artfully tied bow fancying up an otherwise mundane sentence.

If there’s no fanciful reason to use it, then, there must be a practical one. And indeed there is! Not every two independent clauses can easily be joined with a comma and a conjunction. Let’s imagine, for example, a murder mystery in which identical twins Jane and Janet are suspects. In the climactic accusation scene, Jane cries out, “But I wasn’t in the barn that night; Janet was!” How would you perform a semicolonectomy on this sentence?

  1. “But I wasn’t in the barn that night! Janet was!”
  2. “But I wasn’t in the barn that night, but Janet was!”
  3. “But I wasn’t in the barn that night, and Janet was!”

The first one is OK, but it paints a slightly different picture. In the original, you can infer that she’s saying this all in a rush, because the semicolon tells you that the two halves of that sentence are part of a single thought. In this two-sentence version, I picture instead Jane protesting her own innocence and then, after a beat wherein she puts two and two together, swiveling to accuse her sister. Also, in the original version, I read it with the emphasis on the word I, but I read option 1 with the emphasis on wasn’t. These are subtle distinctions, but they affect the flavor of the scene, and I like a writer who can almost invisibly influence my perceptions when they want to.

The second two… eesh, right? You might say I’m stacking the deck with the repeated but in number 2, but what would you have me do? To eliminate the first but reduces the vehemence of her denial, but but certainly seems like the conjunction you want there if you must have one. I gave you option 3 to show you that even without the doubled word, adding a conjunction totally changes the rhythm of the sentence, makes it kind of clunky, takes away from the impact of the revelation.

There is a fourth option that I haven’t mentioned here yet: the em dash. The em dash can indicate an abrupt break in the train of thought or a dramatic pause, so it could work here: “But I wasn’t in the barn that night—Janet was!” That’s not too bad; if you’re really determined not to use a semicolon, it’ll do fine.

Consider another example: “I failed my anger management class; they showed me a picture of that laughing dog and I freaked.” What conjunction would you put here? You could say you failed your anger management because they showed you a picture of that horrible hound, but then you technically don’t have two independent clauses anymore—because is a subordinating conjunction, which means that it makes what comes after it into a dependent clause that can’t stand on its own. The only other way I can think to do it is to flip the sentence around: “They showed me a picture of that laughing dog, so I failed anger management class.” The meaning is the same, but the punchline sure ain’t. You could try the em dash again here, but this isn’t really an abrupt change, is it? One thought flows logically into the next. But the em dash’s rules are fuzzy, so maybe it works for you here, too.

OK, so one final example sentence, this time one that I stole: “Happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember.” –Oscar Levant

Now what? You can’t break that into two sentences; they don’t retain their intended meaning when split apart. You can’t use a coordinating conjunction—one that would allow both halves to remain independent clauses—because there aren’t any that work. Nor can I think of any subordinating conjunctions that apply, even if you accept that that will change the structure of the sentence. You could add instead, but that would still require a semicolon—it’s called a conjunctive adverb, and since it’s not a true conjunction, it doesn’t count for the joining-with-a-comma-and-conjunction strategy. Besides, then you’d just be cluttering up a nicely balanced sentence. You could try an em dash, but I would fight you. Those two thoughts cannot be so dramatically separated. Semicolon it is; semicolon it must be.

Certainly you can often avoid the semicolon if you don’t like it—a simple rewrite or an em dash will get rid of it in most instances without any significant change to meaning. And if you’re not clear on the rules of semicolon usage, that’s a good strategy. But we can’t just banish them altogether, no matter what Kurt Vonnegut said. They are important. They do something essential. We should take care when we use them, but we should be allowed to use them.


Dash It All

Can you please break down dashes and hyphens? When do we use an em-dash? When do we use an en-dash? Do we put a space between the words on either side of a hyphen or not? Help!


Hoo boy! This is kind of a big topic, so I’m going to try to give you a handy-dandy cheat sheet rather than a detailed breakdown everything you could ever want to know.

Hyphen (-): This is the littlest dash, and it’s used to join words with other words. This usually happens when two words preceding a noun are combining to modify it (this is called a compound modifier), like first-class cabin, or when several words go together to make up one noun, like johnny-come-lately. Hyphens show that several words form a single unit and help you read them together, as you were meant to. The example everyone loves to give is that a high school student might be either a stoner or a secondary schooler, but a high-school student can only be a pupil at a high school. That is, you can’t be sure whether high is modifying only school or the whole phrase school student, or even just student, the same way big and red function separately in the big red dog. You don’t need a hyphen in a compound modifier when one of the words is an adverb ending in -ly, like in the swiftly flowing river, because adverbs cannot modify nouns, only adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs, so we already know that swiftly and flowing go together—that’s the only combination that’s allowed, grammatically—so there’s no confusion and no need for a hyphen. When a compound modifier appears after the noun it modifies and a version the verb to be, the hyphen often sticks around to help prevent confusion, so the little-known play and the play is little-known. NEVER put spaces around a hyphen.

En dash (–): En dashes are slightly wider than hyphens—the width of a lowercase n, or at least that’s the idea. Their main function is to join whole phrases to other words or phrases, as in World War II–era planes or post–Johnson administration policies. The en dash means that you’re talking about policies that followed the Johnson administration, not administration policies after Johnson. The en dash doesn’t always look much different from the hyphen, so I think this distinction is lost on many readers. Some style guides, like the AP Stylebook, which is used by many newspapers, don’t use en dashes at all. Instead, these publications often put hyphens between every word in the phrase. AP would have you write World War II-era planes, because it wouldn’t stick hyphens in the middle of a proper noun, and post-Johnson-administration policies. The other time you tend to see the en dash is setting off attributions of quotes, like I did with your name up above. The en dash also never takes spaces around it.

Em dash (—): The em dash is the longest of the three and, as you may have guessed, is meant to be the width of a lowercase m. It is used to set off parentheticals—asides in the middle of the sentence, like this one—or to mark a dramatic pause at the end of a sentence, like so: “First things first: to the death.” “No—to the pain.” There are no real rules about what kind of asides should be set off with em dashes versus what should be set off with commas or parentheses, so different writers and editors will use dramatically different quantities of em dashes. Just know that there should not be more than one set of them per sentence (it becomes impossible to tell what is aside and what it the main body of the sentence), and that using a lot of them makes your writing sound somewhat staccato. As for whether to put spaces around them, here you actually have a choice. Some style guides say yes, others say no. I don’t use them, obviously, but there’s no real reason for that other than I think the spaces make sentences look… well, kind of spacey. In your own writing, all that matters is that you pick one style and stick to it.

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My Mercenary Side

Zazzle StoreYou may have noticed that I added a button to the sidebar yesterday that takes you to the Zazzle store I just set up. For now, the design at right—a prettied-up version of one of my more popular tweets—is the only one available, but if there’s anything else you’d like to see on a T-shirt or mug, please let me know.

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