Tag Archives: Strunk and White

Style guides

stylebook    BuzzFeed style guide

“Style guide editors are insecure people who show their need to be loved by wanting everyone to speak, spell and write just like them. Or so I read somewhere.” So said David Marsh, who edits The Guardian‘s style guide, with his tongue firmly in his cheek. But I think there might be a tiny grain of truth to his claim …

Even though we English-speakers all share the same language, it’s wonderful to see how many organizations lay down their own strict rules and regulations about how it should be used — and to watch how seriously and authoritatively these laws of the proverbial land are protected, defended, and monitored, even in the most unlikely of places. Like Buzzfeed, the social media giant, which published its style guide last month to the world’s great surprise and amusement. I mean, in what other list of words and expressions would you find these entries rubbing up against each other: “bandmates, Bashar al-Assad, batshit” … “Hoodie,  hook-up (n.), hook up (v.), Hosni Mubarak” … “Mixtape, mmm hmm, M.O., Muammar al-Qaddafi”??

In the U.S., most journalists and media professionals follow the AP Stylebook, whereas non-journalist professionals tend to look to The Chicago Manual of Style for their language guidance. Brits often defer to Oxford (University Press and Dictionaries): that’s where they got their so-called Oxford comma. Scholars and academics consult the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, and a classic and popular style guide for the general public is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, known more colloquially by the names of its authors. The world’s important newspapers each have their own set of rules — and they often disagree with each other and with the authoritative style guides on the most basic principles. For example, the New York Times‘s Manual of Style and Usage differs from the AP Stylebook on at least these two points: the “Grey Lady” uses an apostrophe + s after an s for possessives; AP style doesn’t. The former allows the use of the word over when referring to numbers and amounts: AP doesn’t.

Here are some examples, tips, and words of wisdom from some of the world’s great language guides, as well as some links to style guides that you might be surprised to know even existed …

Style guides on Twitter:

The Guardian’s style guide: “expatriate: often misspelt as ex-patriot, ex-pat, or ex-patriate. But this is ex meaning “out of” (cf export), not ex- as in “former”.

AP Stylebook: “AP Style tip: It’s dis, dissing, dissed.”

Chicago Manual of Style: “Tip: Don’t use an en dash in place of the word “to” if the pair is preceded by “from” (from 1906 to 2013 not from 1906–2013)”

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The Economist‘s style guide
1. Never use a Metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do (see Short words).
3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out (see Unnecessary words).
4. Never use the Passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a Jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous (see Iconoclasm).

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You can see a copy of The Guardian‘s original style guide, published in 1928; a particularly nice touch is its three sections devoted respectively to Cricket, Football and House Servants …

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The UK government’s digital service style guide: it advises writers to be

  • brisk but not terse
  • incisive (friendliness can lead to a lack of precision and unnecessary words) – but remain human (not a faceless machine)
  • serious but not pompous
  • emotionless – adjectives can be subjective and make the text sound more emotive and like spin

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The U.S. Navy‘s style guide:
“aboard vs. on board – These two terms mean nearly the same thing and in some uses are interchangeable. “Aboard” is the preferred usage. Use “on board” as two words, but hyphenate on board when used as an adjective. “Aboard” means on board, on, in or into a ship.
The crew is aboard the ship.
An on-board medical team uses the on-board computer.
BUT NOT: The Sailor is going on board the ship.
Also, a Sailor is stationed “on,” “at,” “is serving with” or “is assigned to” a ship. A Sailor does not serve “in” a ship.
A ship is “based at” or “homeported at” a specific place. A plane is “stationed at” or is “aboard” a ship; is “deployed with” or is “operating from” a ship. Squadrons are “stationed at” air stations. Air wings are “deployed with” ships”

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The  Solicitor General‘s Style Guide:

“Italicize true Latin terms like a fortioriinfra, and supra. Also italicize e.g. and i.e. But no italics for Anglicized (in other words, familiar) Latin terms like certiorari, per se, pro se, and status quo.”

“Pleaded” or “pled”? Pleaded: “Petitioner pleaded guilty.”

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The Associated Press issued a Winter Games style guide for editors at its member news organizations. “Within stories, lowercase the events: e.g., halfpipe, men’s downhill, women’s slalom, men’s figure skating, women’s luge, two-man bobsled, men’s skeleton.”

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The U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual, published since 1894, is a guide to the style and form of Federal Government printing. There’s no better guide to the use of the em-dash, in my opinion. (See page 204.)

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GLAAD‘s Media Reference Guide – a transgender glossary of terms for journalists.

Transgender An umbrella term (adj.) for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers and other gender-variant people. Transgender people may identify as female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female (MTF). Use the descriptive term (transgendertranssexualcross-dresser, FTM or MTF) preferred by the individual. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.

Transsexual (also Transexual) An older term which originated in the medical and psychological communities. While some transsexual people still prefer to use the term to describe themselves, many transgender people prefer the term transgender to transsexual. Unlike transgendertranssexual is not an umbrella term, as many transgender people do not identify as transsexual. It is best to ask which term an indi­vidual prefers.

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Style Guide for the name of the church. “While the term “Mormon Church” has long been publicly applied to the Church as a nickname, it is not an authorized title, and the Church discourages its use.”


Firstly, first ever, and first and foremost: a superfluousness of firsts

adam&eveAdam and Eve: the first ever man and woman

First up: first ever. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves. I just can’t help it: when I see the words “first ever” used as an adjective, my skin crawls and my red pens stand on end.

First means first, second means second… (you get the idea). There’s no such thing as “slightly first”; it’s an absolute adjective like unique, complete, empty or dead that can’t be modified, diluted, or used comparatively. If something or someone is or came first, it can’t be made more so by adding ever; he can’t be “more first” than her (in the same way that she can’t be “more dead” than him — although that concept is now sadly up for argument, given recent heartrending stories in the news). So why the constant use of “first ever” — which seems especially to litter the language of PR and marketing? When I see that phrase preceding a premiere, debut, record-breaking achievement or any such definitive claim to fame, I just want to cry foul — although I can never help but wonder why it’s never hyphenated, as it presumably would or should be if it were “proper” … (There’s more below on ever used as an intensifier — although I still argue that you can’t intensify first.)

Secondly: firstly. As Bill Bryson says in his Dictionary of Troublesome Words, “the question of whether one may write firstly or not when beginning a list of points constitutes one of the more inane but most hotly disputed issues in the history of English usage. De Quincey called firstly “a ridiculous and most pedantic neologism'”. Strunk and White advise: “Unless you are prepared to begin with firstly and defend it (which will be difficult), do not prettify numbers with -ly.” Thirdly and lastly, Fowler sums up the argument: “The preference for first over firstly in formal enumerations is one of the harmless pedantries in which those who like oddities because they are odd are free to indulge, provided that they abstain from censuring those who do not share the liking.”

Now here’s another tautologous problem with first, in its role as an adverb. When it’s used with words like announce, conceive, create, or reveal — as in “there was an outcry when the statue was first revealed” — first can be superfluous. Surely something can’t be revealed or created twice, so how can it be first revealed? See below for a similar argument about the possible superfluousness of ever.

Lastly but not leastly: first and foremost. As Bill Bryson says succinctly: “Choose one.”

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“When will he ever finish that book?” One could argue that ever is superfluous in that context: take it away, and the meaning of the question — whether it’s rhetorical or not — is still clear. “Why did we ever start this discussion?” Fowler in his Modern English Usage was characteristically dismissive, describing it as “often used in uneducated or ultra-colloquial talk as an emphasizer of who, what, when, & other interrogative words, corresponding to such phrases in educated talk as who in the world, what on earth, where (can he) possibly (be?).” But there are those who argue that ever can be used effectively as an intensifier of interrogative words (although not for absolute adjectives or superlatives like first or largest, as in my first and foremost pet peeve above). Bill Bryson defends this usage eloquently, arguing first that it “has been well established for the better part of a century and can thus be defended on grounds of idiom.” He adds a second and “perhaps more important consideration, … that ever often adds a useful air of embracing generality. If I say, ‘Have you been to Paris?’ there is some ambiguity as to what span of time we are considering. If, however, I say, ‘Have you ever been to Paris?” you cannot doubt that I mean at any time in your life. In short, there may be a case for using ever carefully, even sparingly. To ban it outright is fussy and unidiomatic and can easily lead to unnecessary confusion.”


A letter of note (with advice for writers) from E. B. White

E B White

E. B. White, the American writer best known for his children’s books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, was also a co-author of the authoritative language manual The Elements of Style (more commonly known as Strunk and White). The distinguished author contributed for several decades to The New Yorker, and it was on the letterhead of this storied publication that White sent a tardy reply to a letter from one of his fans, “Mike”, who had written to White asking for his advice on what an author had to do in order to get a book published.

Visit Without ellipses to read White’s considered reply …

White did actually share some of his more profound thoughts on the art of writing and those who attempt it. Here are some of his more pithy remarks on the subject:

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

“Commas in the New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.”

“Semi-colons only prove that the author has been to college.”

“I can only assume that your editorial writer tripped over the First Amendment and thought it was the office cat.”

“I don’t know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.”

“A writer’s style reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias … It is the Self escaping into the open.”

“I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.”

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.”

“Trust me, Wilbur. People are very gullible. They’ll believe anything they see in print.”

“Writing is both mask and unveiling.”

“Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.”

“Writing is hard work and bad for the health.”

Marketing hype at each and every turn


Strunk and White call it “pitchman’s jargon”. Bryan A. Garner describes the phrase in his Modern American Usage as “trite” and recommends avoiding it.

“Each and every” is one of my pet peeves, and it jostles for position at the top of my list of most annoying ’emphasizers’ that are now ubiquitous in marketing and media hype. (“First ever” is at Number 1, and will probably stay there for the foreseeable future.)

“Each and every” is tautologous, even though the words have slightly different meanings – or perhaps more accurately, different emphases. Each means every one separately, with the emphasis being on the separate identity of each person or thing in the collection. Every means each and all – without exception. Here the emphasis is on the fact that everyone or everything in the group has something in common. Take these two sentences: “Each camper carried his own lunch.” “Every camper carried his lunch.” The first sentence is pointing out that the campers had a separate meal each, probably lovingly prepared by a doting parent, and each had responsibility for carrying his own brown bag. In the second sentence, the thrust of the message is that all the campers were carrying their midday meals; no-one was going hungry on that particular day. Even though the same campers were carrying the same lunches in the two sentences, their meanings are subtly different.

“Each day brought a different challenge to her project, but every day started with a cup of coffee.” In this case the challenge gave each day its own unique and particular character; the coffee united the days and described a homogenous blur of caffeinated waking hours.

“Each and every” has slowly but surely crept into marketing- and media-speak as a way of emphasizing the no-exception, all-inclusive nature of an offer, deal, or  campaign, or even just emphasizing a fact. Here the emphasis is clearly on every thing, every one, every time. Each is like a toddler being dragged along behind with a thumb in her mouth: there’s no place for individuality or separation here. Using the phrase “each and every” is really a form of literary impotence or laziness, where more creative wording could be used to give every the weight it probably deserves. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that usage experts generally denounce the phrase as a cliché, a pomposity, and a bit of bureaucratic bombast.

The same criticisms can be aimed at the similarly tautologous phrase “first ever”, another marketing-hype term, which tries clumsily to accentuate the first. There are no different gradations of first: something is either first or it isn’t (when it’s second, or third, etc. …). Adding ever doesn’t make it more first; it serves only to annoy – and possibly even to raise the suspicions of – the attentive reader or listener. A more elegant way to underline the fact that the person or thing in question has beaten everyone or everything else to the start-line is to introduce a qualifying verbal phrase using ever as an adverb: “The first person ever to set foot on Mars”; “the first time the piece has ever been performed”.


Farewell Queen’s English Society: who will care now?


H. W. Fowler, William Safire, Strunk & White, Henry Higgins: what associations do these names evoke in our age of texts and tweets, lols and omgs? How many teenagers have even heard of those people, let alone read and relished what they wrote or talked about? (Well, perhaps the fictional one might have filtered through …) Granted, language pedants and advocates don’t generally ooze humor, glamor or sex appeal – although Lynne Truss proved to be a refreshing exception with her funny and accessible book  “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”, which made it to the bestseller lists. Who are the popular standard-bearers and advocates of our language nowadays?

The Queen’s English Society is now defunct. It might have stood its ground if it had changed its name  and branding. Let’s face it: who still speaks what we think of as “the Queen’s English”, other than Her Majesty herself and her Firm? Given that most English-speakers don’t want to talk with proverbial (or literal, in the case of poor Eliza Doolittle) marbles in their mouths, the idea of preserving, promoting or identifying with the voice of the hoity-toities is not just unpopular or ‘un-PC’, but broadcasting companies and casting agencies are apparently using reverse discrimination when it comes to hiring voices, and public figures are ‘dumbing down’ the way they speak (Tony Blair is thought to have done just that during his tenure at No. 10).

But we’re not talking about accents and elocution, getting away with it at Ascot or impressing foreign princes here. It’s more about the clarity and usefulness of our most sophisticated  and highly-developed form of communication, and whether its sheer functionality is being eroded as its policing declines and there’s no-one upholding its laws. The political correctness of the liberal linguists is taking a firm hold, and there are persuasive arguments that the constant evolution and ever-changing usage of our language keeps it limber, pertinent, dynamic and even beautiful. But there’s also a danger that with fewer old-fashioned custodians keeping our tongues, pens and iPhones in check, we’ll not only lose a historic monument of living, breathing art, but more importantly we’ll find it increasingly difficult to communicate with each other at the subtle and complex level that our language – until now – has enabled us to do. The laws of language – grammar, punctuation, and even spelling – are there to prevent ambiguity and ease understanding. Without them, we’ll be left with a lawless, anarchic mess of meaningless words.

Here are two articles – in The Telegraph and The Independent respectively – about the Queen’s English and the Society that struggled to protect it.


It is easy to mock the Queen’s English Society – but our language will be poorer without them


June 6th, 2012

Now the Queen's English Society is gone, will we see more grocer's apostrophes? (Photo: Geoff Pugh)

Now that the Queen’s English Society is gone, will anybody even care about grocers’ apostrophes? (Photo: Geoff Pugh)


The Queen’s English Society is dead. After just 22 people attended their annual meeting, and nobody put themselves forward to become the next chairman, the society was wound up. Liberal linguists will no doubt celebrate with a riot of misplaced apostrophes, misspelt homophones and randomly positioned capital letters.

Read the full article here.


Bernard Lamb offered an impassioned defence for the upholding of the Queen’s English a couple of years ago in The Independent.

God save the Queen’s English: Our language is under threat from ignorance,

inverted snobbery and deliberate ‘dumbing down’

Far from being outmoded, the correct use of our language is more important than ever, argues Bernard Lamb

Thursday 07 October 2010

The Queen’s English is correct, conventional, standard British English. It is the most authoritative and easily understood form of the language. One finds it in non-fiction and fiction, in textbooks in almost all subjects, in newspapers, in government and business documents, and in public and private correspondence.

Departures from the Queen’s English do get noticed. The head of an online graduate recruitment agency wrote that they reject one third of all job applications from graduates with good degrees from good universities, because errors in English in their CVs and covering letters show ignorance, carelessness and a bad attitude.

The term “the Queen’s English” dates back to 1592, Queen Elizabeth I’s time, but using the Queen’s English is not the prerogative of royalty or any class, group, region or country. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “the English language as regarded as under the guardianship of the Queen; hence, standard or correct English”.

Read the full article here.


Henry Hitchings looked at the misuse of apostrophes and other questions about punctuation’s future in the Wall Street Journal in October 2011:

Is This the Future of Punctuation!?

On the misuse of apostrophe’s (did your eye just twitch?) and our increasingly rhetorical language

By Henry Hitchings

Punctuation arouses strong feelings. You have probably come across the pen-wielding vigilantes who skulk around defacing movie posters and amending handwritten signs that advertise “Rest Room’s” or “Puppy’s For Sale.”

People fuss about punctuation not only because it clarifies meaning but also because its neglect appears to reflect wider social decline. And while the big social battles seem intractable, smaller battles over the use of the apostrophe feel like they can be won.

Read the full article here.


We like to like like Tina Charles loves to love

And I’m not, like, talking about kids who, like, can’t get through a sentence without, like, saying like. That scourge is so, like, 20th-century.

No, I’m talking about when the word like is used before a clause (as a conjunction).

The universally accepted and undisputed usage of like is as a preposition (ie. governing nouns and pronouns): “She looks like her daughter.” “He sounds like a bird.”

It’s when like is used as a conjunction (ie. connecting two clauses) that swords are drawn, tempers start to flare, and trans-Atlantic disagreement comes into play.  In the US, the colloquial use of like as a conjunction is now reasonably commonplace and accepted, especially when like simply replaces as (which more appropriately governs phrases and clauses). “We now have brunch every Sunday like we did in Sweden.” Such a sentence generally grates on English ears, which prefer, “We now have brunch every Sunday as we did in Sweden.”

Fowler, in his Modern English Usage, tackled this “most flagrant and easily recognizable misuse of like,” referring to the OED which similarly and roundly condemned the misuse as “vulgar or slovenly”.  The OED colorfully used a sentence written by Darwin (“Unfortunately few have observed like you have done”) to illustrate the abuse.

More egregious – and even more grating to British English speakers – is when like replaces as if or as though, masquerading even more  boldly as a conjunction. Fowler cites this lovely OED example: “The old fellow drank of the brandy like he was used to it.” Nowadays, the Oxford American Dictionary recognizes the “informal” usage of like as a conjunction to replace as; however, it clearly forbids using the word to mean as if or as though.

If you want to delve into the even more complicated arguments about the use and misuse of this overused word that we love to like (especially once we get into ‘disguised conjuntional use’, when there is no subordinate verb), Fowler’s your man.

Meanwhile, Strunk and White summarize the tussle over ‘like’ in their characteristically eloquent fashion, using it as a case study to argue more generally about the evolution of language:

“The use of like for as has its defenders; they argue that any usage that achieves currency becomes valid automatically. This, they say, is the way the language is formed. It is and it isn’t. An expression sometimes merely enjoys a vogue, much as an article of apparel does. Like has long been widely misused by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed, who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming. If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines. For the student, perhaps the most useful thing to know about like is that most carefully edited publications regard its use before phrases and clauses as simple error.”


Hopefully taking a crack at hopefully

Hopefully, Oliver Twist asks for more.

That, in a nutshell, is “hopefully” being used correctly: when it refers to the hopeful mind-frame of the subject of the sentence – and not of the writer (or of a wider assumed consensus). The last thing any of us  – including, presumably, Dickens – would have hoped was that Oliver should step forward and make that legendary request. And yet it’s correct to say that “hopefully, he asks for more”.

As Mark Davidson explains in his book Right, Wrong, and Risky, “the adverb hopefully is risk-free if you use it to modify a verb or an adjective, and thus to mean “in a hopeful manner”.” He goes on to quote an example from the New York Times: “In anticipation of China’s 2008 Olympic bid, the city [of Beijing] is fervently and hopefully preparing for the event.”

However, the word is often used colloquially as a sentence modifier, rather than as an adverb, with the implied meaning “it is to be hoped that”. Compare it with the sentence modifier “fortunately”, implying that anyone writing or reading the sentence recognizes that “it is fortunate that” whatever follows does indeed follow. But the word is “hope-FUL-ly” – not “hope-ly”, or “hope-ably”. It makes no sense to say “it is hopeful that” – since someone has to be doing the hoping in order for it to be hopeful and full of hope.

Strunk and White go far in their damnation of the word ‘hopefully’ used as a sentence modifier. “Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly. To say, ‘Hopefully I’ll leave on the noon plane’ is to talk nonsense. Do you mean you’ll leave on the noon plane in a hopeful frame of mind?  … Although the word in its new, free-floating capacity may be pleasurable and even useful to many, it offends the ear of many others, who do not like to see words dulled or eroded, particularly when the erosion leads to ambiguity, softness, or nonsense.”

Hopefully I’ll never find myself making a word choice that would have offended Messrs Strunk and White.


It’s National Punctuation Day … ! : )

It’s September 24: National Punctuation Day!! To celebrate, I’m going to indulge in my slightly weird form of synesthesia that has to do with commas and colons. I know: the brains of most synesthetes come alive with colors and personalities when they rest their eyes on numbers or letters; well, in my case it’s punctuation that does the trick — and not just when ‘:’ + ‘)’ = : ) … Here are a few of the characters that dance in my head when my eyes alight on these sentence markers.

The lowly, overused comma is both modest and attention-seeking, hoping to get noticed enough to make the reader pause for breath, but not enough, for the most part, to cause alarm, distraction, or closure. One of the most vital and possibly even the most argued-about little guys in our armory of written symbols, he plods along and does his job, bravely and unobtrusively, without too much fuss.

The passionate exclamation mark! So full of exuberance and life! And youthfulness! And sometimes uselessness! Used in excess by every teenager and texter! A shot of grammatical caffeine!!!

The underused colon: anticipating, leading, prodding: what explanation or surprise is going to follow it: where is it taking us? So often hijacked and substituted by its less pointed cousin, the comma, the colon looks and thinks forward: what’s next?

The stately and slightly smug semi-colon lords over the comma with its more majestic and powerful pause; without bringing closure, it begs us to stay with the thought; it teases us with the idea that there might be closure; but there’s more. Like a dominant chord before the final tonic, it keeps us dangling and hanging on until the denouement: the period.

The melancholy little ellipsis, which trails off into silence … Never really finishing its thought, but inviting speculation and ambiguity … Sometimes just inquisitive, other times provocative, it gives pause, and invites the reader to draw his own conclusions … A more classy version of the typewritten smiley face, the ellipsis hints at irony, jest, and sometimes it even flirts …

The mad professor’s dash — unable to stay on topic and always ready for an aside — livens and colors the flow of thought. Although it has to be used sparingly — too many dashes in a sentence cause distraction and confusion — its job is unique and can’t be delegated to the more pedestrian comma. No — the dash has some of the exclamation point’s vitality and elan. We write fluently and logically, following a steady stream of thoughts  — and then the dash interrupts us, but it can’t be ignored.


Here’s how National Punctuation Day suggests that we celebrate this important day. And remember: don’t overdo it.


Here’s a game plan for your celebration of National Punctuation Day®. A few words of caution: Don’t overdo it.

  • Sleep late.
  • Take a long shower or bath.
  • Go out for coffee and a bagel (or two).
  • Read a newspaper and circle all of the punctuation errors you find (or think you find, but aren’t sure) with a red pen.
  • Take a leisurely stroll, paying close attention to store signs with incorrectly punctuated words.
  • Stop in those stores to correct the owners.
  • If the owners are not there, leave notes.
  • Visit a bookstore and purchase a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
  • Look up all the words you circled.
  • Congratulate yourself on becoming a better written communicator.
  • Go home.
  • Sit down.
  • Write an error-free letter to a friend.
  • Take a nap. It has been a long day.

Prose interrupted — yet again

A wonderfully thorough, entertaining and helpful article in Slate magazine about the rising epidemic of the dastardly em dash — and how we can cure it.


The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash

Modern prose doesn’t need any more interruptions—seriously.

By Noreen Malone

Posted Tuesday, May 24, 2011, at 4:32 PM ET

Emily Dickinson. Click image to expand.


According to the Associated Press StylebookSlate‘s bible for all things punctuation- and grammar-related—there are two main prose uses—the abrupt change and the series within a phrase—for the em dash. The guide does not explicitly say that writers can use the dash in lieu of properly crafting sentences, or instead of a comma or a parenthetical or a colon—and yet in practical usage, we do. A lot—or so I have observed lately. America’s finest prose—in blogs, magazines, newspapers, or novels—is littered with so many dashes among the dots it’s as if the language is signaling distress in Morse code.

What’s the matter with an em dash or two, you ask?—or so I like to imagine. What’s not to like about a sentence that explores in full all the punctuational options—sometimes a dash, sometimes an ellipsis, sometimes a nice semicolon at just the right moment—in order to seem more complex and syntactically interesting, to reach its full potential? Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?

Nope—or that’s my take, anyway. Now, I’m the first to admit—before you Google and shame me with a thousand examples in the comments—that I’m no saint when it comes to the em dash. I never met a sentence I didn’t want to make just a bit longer—and so the dash is my embarrassing best friend. When the New York Times’ associate managing editor for standards—Philip B. Corbett, for the record—wrote a blog post scolding Times writers for overusing the dash (as many as five dashes snuck their way into a single 3.5-paragraph story on A1, to his horror), an old friend from my college newspaper emailed it to me. “Reminded me of our battles over long dashes,” he wrote—and, to tell the truth, I wasn’t on the anti-dash side back then. But as I’ve read and written more in the ensuing years, my reliance on the dash has come to feel like a pack-a-day cigarette habit—I know it makes me look and sound and feel terrible—and so I’m trying to quit.

The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don’t you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won’t be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that’s not yet complete? Strunk and White—who must always be mentioned in articles such as this one—counsel against overusing the dash as well: “Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.” Who are we, we modern writers, to pass judgment—and with such shocking frequency—on these more simple forms of punctuation—the workmanlike comma, the stalwart colon, the taken-for-granted period? (One colleague—arguing strenuously that certain occasions call for the dash instead of other punctuation, for purposes of tone—told me he thinks of the parenthesis as a whisper, and the dash as a way of calling attention to a phrase. As for what I think of his observation—well, consider how I have chosen to offset it.)


Perhaps, in some way, the recent rise of the dash—and this “trend” is just anecdotal observation; I admit I haven’t found a way to crunch the numbers—is a reaction to our attention-deficit-disordered culture, in which we toggle between tabs and ideas and conversations all day. An explanation is not an excuse, though—as Corbett wrote in another sensible harangue against the dash, “Sometimes a procession of such punctuation is a hint that a sentence is overstuffed or needs rethinking.” Why not try for clarity in our writing—if not our lives?

It’s unclear—even among the printing community—when the em dash came into common usage. Folklore—if you’re willing to trust it—holds that it’s been around since the days of Gutenberg but didn’t catch on until at least the 1700s because the em dash wasn’t used in the Bible, and thus was considered an inferior bit of punctuation. The symbol derives its name from its width—approximately equal to an m—and is easily confused with its close cousin the en dash, used more frequently across the pond, but here meant only to offset sports scores and the like. The em dash isn’t easily formed on computers—it requires some special keystrokes on both PCs and Macs—and so I will admit that at least some of my bile comes from, as a copy editor, endlessly changing other writers’ sloppy em-dash simulacra (the double dash, the single offset dash) to the real thing.

Perhaps the most famous dash-user in history—though she didn’t use the em dash conventionally—was Emily Dickinson. According to the essay “Emily Dickinson’s Volcanic Punctuation” from a 1993 edition of The Emily Dickinson Journal—a true general-interest read!—”Dickinson’s excessive use of dashes has been interpreted variously as the result of great stress and intense emotion, as the indication of a mental breakdown, and as a mere idiosyncratic, female habit.” Can there really be—at the risk of sounding like a troglodyte—something feminine about the use of a dash, some sort of lighthearted gossamer quality? Compare Dickinson’s stylistic flitting with the brutally short sentences of male writers—Hemingway, for instance—who, arguably, use their clipped style to evoke taciturn masculinity. Henry Fielding apparently rewrote his sister Sarah’s work heavily to edit out some of her idiosyncrasies—chief among them, a devotion to the dash. In Gore Vidal’s Burr, the title character complains—in a charming internal monologue—”Why am I using so many dashes? Like a schoolgirl. The dash is the sign of a poor style. Jefferson used to hurl them like javelins across the page.” So is the rise of the dash related—as everything seems to be these days—to the End of Men? (I kid—calm down.)

More likely, it’s the lack of hard-and-fast usage rules—even the AP’s guidelines are more suggestions than anything—that makes the dash so popular in our post-sentence-diagramming era. According to Lynne Truss—the closest thing we’ve got to a celebrity grammarian, thanks to her best-seller Eats, Shoots and Leaves—people use the em dash because “they know you can’t use it wrongly—which for a punctuation mark, is an uncommon virtue.”

So, fine, the em dash is easy to turn to—any port will do in a storm. But if you want to make your point—directly, with clarity, and memorably—I have some advice you’d do well to consider. Leave the damn em dash alone.