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HD: Ranting About Hyphens
Posted: 18 December 2012 11:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 76 ]
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I’d like to see an example of a case where use of the wrong symbol would cause a confusion.  Just askin’, mind.

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Posted: 18 December 2012 11:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 77 ]
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I’d like to see an example of a case where use of the wrong symbol would cause a confusion.  Just askin’, mind.

On the previous page, LH posted a link to a collection of these.

Now, you can argue that people who aren’t aware of the convention, or don’t recognize the difference between a hyphen and and en-dash, won’t have their potential confusion eliminated by the selective employment of the different symbols.  You can say the same thing about people who don’t understand the different uses of a comma and semicolon, but that doesn’t make the distinction worthless.

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Posted: 18 December 2012 12:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 78 ]
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OTOH, I suspect that the number of people who don’t understand the difference between a comma and a semi-colon is much smaller than the number who don’t understand a hyphen vs. an en dash vs. an emdash.  Even if a reader hasn’t mastered the distinction between a comma and a semi-colon, they would likely have SOME idea of the difference, and would have enough of an idea to get some benefit from judicious use of the two.  I’m not sure that the same is true of the hyphen vs. en dash vs. emdash, although LH’s suggestion that a reader would be aided on an unconscious level by an en dash is a fascinating one, and one that I certainly would not dismiss.  But, as a writer, I’m not sure that I would want to rely on an unconscious prompting, either, if I had a realistic alternative to relying on such a thing (which I might not have).
I certainly agree, though, that the distinction is not worthless.

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Posted: 18 December 2012 01:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 79 ]
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I agree that in some of the examples lh cited, confusion is eliminated by the use of the em-dash, en-dash and hyphen.  However these sentences use word combinations that appear clumsy in everyday English*, and here I agree with kurwamac and others that the best solution is to rewrite in order to create a more elegant sentence, eliminate confusion and aid comprehension.

I suspect that Dr Techie and languagehat are arguing more from the point of view of the specialist** in disciplines where multiple-word combinations (not multiple word-combinations) afford brevity but which also assume that readers have sufficient knowledge to enable them to grasp these complex scientific or other concepts. 

*but not in all languages. However, this post is about English, not other languages.
**one as a scientist, one as the proof editor of scientific documents

edited in “em-dash”

[ Edited: 18 December 2012 01:51 PM by ElizaD ]
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Posted: 09 January 2013 04:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 80 ]
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Apologies for being so late to this battle (I was on holiday) but one aspect of this “controversy” has so far been overlooked: the rules on dashes in the UK and the US are (mostly) entirely different. (And the more fastidious Rightpondians call them rules, not dashes, though “the rules on rules” is too much for me: my personal idiolect says “dash”.)

Generally speaking, in the UK, newspapers and periodicals never use the em dash, only the en dash. Many (?most?) UK book publishers use the em dash, not the en dash, but those that do use the em dash often put spaces before and after (though the Oxford University Press follows the US convention and omits the spaces.) UK newspapers also generally use the hyphen where, often, it appears, US publications would use an en dash.

If this link works, you can read Hart’s Rules (the UK equivalent of Chicago for the book trade) on em and en dashes here – it’s too long to quote in full, but to give you a flavour of the nice distinctions Hart’s makes, it says that one should

use an en rule between names of joint authors or creators to show that it is not the hyphenated name of one person. Thus the Lloyd–Jones theory involves two people (en-rule), the Lloyd-Jones theory one person (hyphen) and the Lloyd-Jones–Scargill talks two people (hyphen and en rule).

Now, if the general reader can tell the difference between the Lloyd–Jones theory and the Lloyd-Jones theory , or work out at a glance how many people were involved in the Lloyd-Jones–Scargill talks thanks to a difference of less than a millimetre in two rules, I would be stunned. Certainly no newspaper I know follows that rule on rules: it would be hyphens throughout. Thus while professionally I admire LH’s stern dedication to Chicago style on dash usage, I fear that, as the old joke goes, it may all be a bit like pissing yourself in a dark suit: it might give the copy editor a nice warm feeling, but nobody else notices.

The rant about dashes I would like to have is how far too many writers use them instead of brackets, commas, colons and semi-colons, without realising how ugly a rash of dashes looks in type and on screen. But that’s another soapbox ...

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Posted: 09 January 2013 06:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 81 ]
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Now, if the general reader can tell the difference between the Lloyd–Jones theory and the Lloyd-Jones theory , or work out at a glance how many people were involved in the Lloyd-Jones–Scargill talks thanks to a difference of less than a millimetre in two rules, I would be stunned.

That’s because you assume that one is only affected by things one consciously notices and can explain verbally.  If that were the case, life would be very different than it is.

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Posted: 10 January 2013 03:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 82 ]
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languagehat - 09 January 2013 06:30 AM

Now, if the general reader can tell the difference between the Lloyd–Jones theory and the Lloyd-Jones theory , or work out at a glance how many people were involved in the Lloyd-Jones–Scargill talks thanks to a difference of less than a millimetre in two rules, I would be stunned.

That’s because you assume that one is only affected by things one consciously notices and can explain verbally.  If that were the case, life would be very different than it is.

I agree entirely that readers may absorb unconsciously the fact that one rule is shorter than the other, but that’s still not going to allow them to understand what that difference means, since the implied meaning of the use of the different dashes can only be understood by someone aware of the conventions laid down in Hart’s Rules. Or are you suggesting that unconsciously readers will absorb the idea that the longer dash means two people and the shorter dash one person with a hyphenated name?

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Posted: 10 January 2013 09:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 83 ]
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Or are you suggesting that unconsciously readers will absorb the idea that the longer dash means two people and the shorter dash one person with a hyphenated name?

Yes, I am.

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Posted: 10 January 2013 04:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 84 ]
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I suppose you could use a slash between different people’s names but that might be too easy.

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Posted: 11 January 2013 07:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 85 ]
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languagehat - 10 January 2013 09:43 AM

Or are you suggesting that unconsciously readers will absorb the idea that the longer dash means two people and the shorter dash one person with a hyphenated name?

Yes, I am.

As I’ve occasionally had to point out to highly experienced proof-readers that the wrong dash has been used in a piece of copy, I hae ma doots about the public’s ability to spot the difference between dashes, unconsciously or not. It would be lovely if I was wrong, however.

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Posted: 11 January 2013 11:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 86 ]
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Of course people miss dash errors, just as they do spelling errors and every other kind of error—even “highly experienced proof-readers.” That is neither here nor there, and doesn’t alter my point.

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Posted: 11 January 2013 02:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 87 ]
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You misspelled necessity.

Oh, you’re right.  Thanks.

You used the wrong dash.

Oh?  What was I supposed to use?

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Posted: 11 January 2013 08:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 88 ]
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The arguments being made for preserving the distinctions between the significance of these various dashes have been made for the preservation of the distinctions between the meanings of, say, infer and imply.
It’s true that in some cases the use of a hyphen rather than a long dash could cause confusion or ambiguity, as examples given here are shown, but a) these cases where this would cause genuine confusion would be fairly rare as usually people can tell what is meant from the broader context and b) in any case, in practice, casual writers ignore the conventions. It is very common to use a hyphen in place of any kind of dash. It is useful to keep the distinctions when writing formally, especially in cases of importance where it is crucial to avoid ambiguity.
Similarly, in casual writing the distinction between infer and imply is often ignored and in most situations this does not cause genuine confusion because the meaning is clear from the broader context. It’s fairly common to use “infer” to mean either make an inference or to imply.  In formal writing, it is wise to preserve the distinction. Certainly it seems to me that the use of infer to mean imply would be inappropriate in a formal document.

I make this comparison because it seems to me that Dave and others are sterner with regard to the preservation of the significance of these dashes than they are to the significance of words. Am I right? If so, why this difference?

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Posted: 12 January 2013 06:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 89 ]
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Because words are common property in common use, and it’s impossible to regulate their use.  Dashes and hyphens occur only in writing, and the kinds of distinctions we’re talking about occur only in formal, printed writing, where use is regulated by style manuals enforced by editors and publishers.

It would be nice if people would start from the assumption that distinctions that seem opaque or unnecessary to them have been developed over a long period of time by specialists who have good reason to use them, rather than (seemingly) assuming that they were whimsically invented by spiteful pedants who just wanted to mess with the minds of the Plain People of Ireland.

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Posted: 12 January 2013 07:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 90 ]
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I appreciate that the distinctions are meaningful and useful.

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