Q: I went to a seminar years ago where a presenter explained that dashes should always come in pairs — and should never be used to create a dramatic pause, like I just did. Even though I can’t remember what his reasoning was — it made sense at the time! — I try to avoid the single dash because it tends to be overused. Do you follow this rule, and can you explain why or why not?
Bill Walsh: Well, of course you can do what you just did!
Dashes both single and double are overused, and I try to cut down on them as an editor, but I have to confess that I’m guilty of overusing them as a writer. I use exclamation points and italics too much, too. Hyphens? Of course!
For a mild-mannered copy editor, I can be a rather gaudy writer.
Q: have always been taught that em dashes (–) are not to have spaces on either side, but I saw you use one space on each side. Why?
Walsh: Purely a matter of style. Some publications are “tight” on the subject; others are “loose.”
Feel free to call me loose.
Q: I can’t tell you how many people at my office (and in general) don’t understand the difference between an em dash and a hyphen. And I won’t even start on how people use the en dash–which is similar to a hyphen in terms of its look–incorrectly. Most people don’t even know what an en dash is.
Walsh: In some quarters, space hyphen space is “correct” style — the ASCII dash for online use.
In the Post’s editing system, stories pasted in from certain word-processing applications, chiefly Microsoft Word, get en dashes where there should be em dashes. I’m not sure cleaning them up is the most productive use of my time, but here I am cleaning them up by the dozens every night.
Q: I’ve noticed many, many modern writers who use an ellipsis to indicate a dramatic pause and it really bugs me! My 1985 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary makes no mention of using an ellipsis to indicate a dramatic pause. Celia Millward’s “Handbook for Writers” states that ellipses are used to indicate “omitted material” and should never be used as a substitute for a dash or any other punctuation mark. Besides suggesting that I obtain a newer dictionary, do you have any comments on this distressing development in modern grammar?
Walsh: I wouldn’t call it all that modern a development. I used it in my sixth-grade camp log, and that was in 19__ …
Q: I LOVE the development of ellipses as dramatic pause. What a cool new use for a punctuation mark. I absolutely use them this way and am grateful for the added variety of ways to indicate a pause with various connotations. To me, ellipses say, “Wait for it …”
Walsh: It is a useful device, employed sparingly.
Q: I see so many people write ellipses in sentences like this: “She said that she didn’t want to see me anymore…but then she liked my Facebook picture.” However, when I consulted my trusted Gregg reference manual recently, I saw that ellipses are supposed to be written and spaced like this: “She said she didn’t want to see me anymore . . . but then she liked my Facebook picture.” Is this correct?
Walsh: Styles vary, but technically for publication you should have space, dot, non-breaking space, dot, non-breaking space, dot, space. In regular old typing, dot dot dot with a space on both sides is fine.
Q: I have seen the double-comma in more and more things I am reading and I was wondering what you think about it. If I understand correctly, it directs the reader to pause slightly longer to contemplate the first clause of the sentence before reading the next clause than they would with just one comma. I have to admit, at first I found it a bit silly and cumbersome, but the more I encounter it the more I like it. Aren’t there diminishing returns on punctuation as well? If people get used to two commas will they add a third?
Walsh: This is the first time I’ve heard of such a thing, outside programming in pauses for speed-dial on my cellphone.
You can put me in the “silly” column. (That didn’t come out quite right, did it?)
Also the diminishing-returns column.
Bring your language gripes, questions and musings to the next Grammar Geekery live chat, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m.