This is an excerpt from Post copy editor Bill Walsh’s monthly Grammar Geekery chat, which takes place the first Tuesday of each month. Chatters wanted to explore the many punctuation marks that recently have been repurposed, particularly on the Internet, as indicators of a dramatic pause. Commas, dashes and ellipses already had clearly defined roles, and Walsh weighed in on whether those should be shifting.  

The dash

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.

Dash technicalities

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.

The ellipsis

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.

Ellipsis technicalities

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.

The double comma

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.