Subtlety in Punctuation Usage

The thing to understand about grammar and spelling is that they’re more or less styles, and not as concrete of rules as grammarians and pedants would like. This is why when you ask about whether the serial comma is correct, the answer is in a style guide, not some solid answer from a single source[1].

That’s to say: sure, there are commonly accepted ways of using punctuation—like using a period to end most sentences—but there’s more flexibility than you think, and the different ways you use punctuation impact the reader’s experience. One that came up last week at my day job was the difference between a sub-statement wrapped in parenthesis and one wrapped in em dashes. Take these three (rather trivial) statements:

The North Pacific Octoshark (known locally as the Misty Monster) is responsible for at least 20 diver deaths a year.

The North Pacific Octoshark—known locally as the Misty Monster—is responsible for at least 20 diver deaths a year.

The North Pacific Octoshark, known locally as the Misty Monster, is responsible for at least 20 diver deaths a year.

The parenthetical version tells your eye that it’s okay to gloss over. You can read the passage with equal intent with or without that contained fragment. This is how you deliver something that’s contextually relevant but is demoted relative to the base statement. It says “hey, come over here if you want to.”

The em dash version has your eye follow the first part of the base statement to the fragment, eye not stopping because there’s no whitespace to do so, no line to create the illusion of containment around the phrase. You can read the base statement without the fragment if you like, but displaying the fragment in this way is about information that’s equal or near-equal in rank to the base statement. It says “hey, pay attention to me!”

[Edit: The comma (as noted in the comments, and edited into the post now) is between the two. It makes it of equal priority, but without highlighting. That isn’t to say that the em dash inherently raises the priority of the fragment, but raises the volume of it the reader. In fact, it make be better to see this effect as volume rather than or alongside priority. I blame the lack of coffee for this omission.]

Note: this is an American style. Common British usage is an en-dash surrounded by spaces instead:

The North Pacific Octoshark – known locally as the Misty Monster – is responsible for at least 20 diver deaths a year.

To my eye, that reads somewhere in between. Almost a politer form, because of the whitespace, but it’s a cultural thing so in many regards how I feel about it doesn’t matter, since I’m an American writer most commonly working for American publishers for American audiences. (But it was something I dealt with on Achtung! Cthulhu.)
[Edit: It’s not globally American. This is Chicago’s style. AP’s style is spaces around em dashes. See comments.]

There are plenty of other places where you could use different punctuation for different connections, or ways of breaking up text that causes the eye to process the information differently. As a writer, be as conscious of the individual uses of your punctuation as you are of overuses of any particular convention. (My sin, for example, is overusing em dashes, though in this post I’m overusing parenthetical—possibly because I’m writing this before the coffee kicks in.)

What subtle punctuation effects have you discovered? What tricks do you do with punctuation to hijack the reader’s processing?

– Ryan

[1] Except the crime of double-spacing after sentences. That’s why we have ants.


15 Responses to Subtlety in Punctuation Usage

  1. > The North Pacific Octoshark, known locally as the Misty Monster, is responsible for at least 20 diver deaths a year.

    With commas, it’s right in between the two.

    Parenthetical aside: “Here’s some extra stuff that’s not as important as the rest of the sentence.”
    Commas: “Hey, this stuff is as important as the other stuff.”
    Em-dashes: “DUDE! CHECK THIS SHIT OUT.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      *facepalm* Yeah, that was in my notes for this post the other week, but totally spaced on that this morning. Edited to add. Thanks!

  2. Jay Treat says:

    Em dashes are lovely, powerful things that so few people use, simply because there’s no single key for them. In addition to the different connotations between dashes, parentheses and commas, sometimes you just need to vary them up so that your writing doesn’t look homogeneous. Parentheses also have the benefit of having a clear start and end where commas and dashes often don’t have a mate at all.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      On Mac, the em dash shift-option-hyphen. Use them enough, it’s pretty much one key, as it’s one thought (just as # is shift-3, and still is effectively one key). En-dash is option-hyphen.

      Yeah, part of different punctuation use is to break up monotony, but you should be conscious of which use you’re going to change, not just make changes at random.

  3. Cam Banks says:

    At MWP I encouraged em dashes with no spaces around them.

    At Atlas, the style is em dashes (not en dashes) with spaces around them.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I always find the “space around em dashes” to be really space-expensive. And if I want my em dashes to break normally on a line (at the end of a line rather than the beginning), I have to throw sone non-breaking spaces there.

      But, that’s style for you. English has fewer actual rules than people think.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      White Wolf/Onyx Path does the same thing with ems and spaces. I wondering if there’s correlation in that regard. Perhaps that’s just Tremere’s style. :D

  4. As If says:

    I also put spaces around my em dashes. I think it’s a habit I picked up when writing for Iron Crown in the 80s. I prefer the way it looks, I don’t like my em dashes touching my words :-)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      As long as you follow the style of whoever you’re writing for (or at least don’t make it painful to fix), what crimes you commit on your own are on you. ;)

      (I’m pretty sure I spaced the space-around rule in a recent document I sent to Atlas, just as a certain author doesn’t remove double spaces from his documents to me. *grin*)

      Seriously, Chicago Manual of Style’s rule on em dashes is to have no space on either side (2.13, 16th ed). I’ll have to find out from my wife what AP’s style is. We don’t have access to MLA or AMA, so I couldn’t tell you what’s the convention in those guides. I’m pretty curious as to which mass-used American style guide says that space-around-em is the way to go. I’m sure there’s at least one.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      According to my wife, AP’s style is to use spaces around dashes, except when it starts a paragraph or some sports usage (p.294, AP Stylebook 2014).

      So, there you go.

    • For the truly typenerdtastic, I have also seen enclosing em-dashes in hairline spaces, which are (scurries to his copy of Elements of Typographic Style) 1/24th of an em in width, about the thickness of a piece of paper.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      With what fonts? Some fonts have em dashes built in with more spacing around it. (I’ve also occasionally screwed with kerning around punctuation like that when it’s been too close or too far for an otherwise cool-looking font.)

  5. Shannon and I find when editing each other’s work that we often don’t agree with the m-dash. He often prefers to rewrite the sentence such that it uses a colon or into two sentences without, whereas I clearly overuse the m-dash. The colon doesn’t quite work right your example “The North Pacific Octoshark is responsible for at least 20 diver deaths a year: it is known locally as the Misty Monster.” but the two sentences version does “The North Pacific Octoshark is responsible for at least 20 diver deaths a year. It is known locally as the Misty Monster.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      And the two sentences version does something completely different than everything else. If I wanted something that sounded academic, I’d go with that. Shannon is an academic, so that doesn’t surprise me.

      Though I loathe “it is known” and similar weak constructions. I always has “Who knows it?” In this case, “Locals call it ‘the Misty Monster.'” is better, and the separation has a different impact still than the three examples in the post.

  6. Tara says:

    An obvious one, maybe, but the difference between using a period and a semicolon. I like the way the latter can imply a relationship between the two clauses.

    Another thing I’m finding interesting is paragraphing. In written text, paragraphs are fairly standard. In online text, however, paragraphs must be shorter. Where writers choose divide their paragraphs can change the overall tone of an article or draw attention to statements/thoughts/etc that would have been lost in the middle of text in a longer paragraph. The effect is somewhat like line breaks in poetry.