Thursday, March 10, 2011


One of the first things I learned on the job – as a hassled-looking, grubby, emaciated, underpaid, overworked, and barely noticeable copy-editor – was the use of dashes. I mean the punctuation marks – en-dashes and em-dashes. I struggled then, and I still struggle, to get them correct. But, over the years I figured out a rule in my head to make use of en-dashes far more than em-dashes. Em-dashes—as you see—are “unappealingly long” (I’m filching a bit from Wikipedia here). And if you use spaced em-dashes — like this — it introduces an awfully wide break, which finicky readers may find unacceptable. So, my rule has been to use spaced en-dash – like this – at every place where I felt the need of an em-dash, which is mostly for parenthetical expressions and occasionally to elaborate something in a sentence. As should be evident by now, I like using dashes – en-dashes especially – so much that if I have to list my favorite punctuation marks, dashes are likely to stay at the top.

So, what is it about a dash that I like? I guess it’s the little wanderings it allow us mid-sentence. A dash is like a respite, a little escape, while not necessarily straying away completely. Well, of course not everyone thinks this way. More serious writers are likely to utilize dashes to infuse more supplementary ideas or give more elegant and winding sentences.

If I remember correctly, I didn’t like dashes at the beginning. As a rookie copy-editor it was a nightmare to proofread a GOP – that’s Galley of Pages, for the uninitiated – strewn with dashes. Justifying which one of these dashes stay put, and deciding which ones I strike off, were (to put it mildly) difficult. People who submits articles to scientific journals – though extremely sound in technical matters – are not always known for being careful with their language. It was rather scary to edit an article from, say, Taiwan, Sweden, or Turkey. And if they were full of strange punctuations we were in the soup.

But the initial dislike, in time, wore off. I moved from being the grubby, emaciated copy-editor to become the vain, well-fed guy who I’d have hated back in my copy-editing days. Anyway, some vestiges of copy-editing remained – often resurfacing when I had to re-read something I wrote and found them crawling with mistakes. I may not have made a competent copy-editor, but these moments told me I was not a complete failure either – I still had the eye to catch at least some of my mistakes, which I wish I never give away.

It’s only when I moved away from copy-editing that I found the pleasing sense of using a dash. I started using, and still use them – though often without fully understanding the grammatical intricacies. I hope the earnest copy-editors will ignore this fallen one of their flock. Please, allow me to use my dashes – however sloppily – and look elsewhere when I’m having some fun with them.