Reference > H.W. Fowler > The King’s English, 2nd ed.

H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter IV. Punctuation


MOVED beyond his wont by our English ill-treatment of the dash, Beadnell permits himself a wail as just as it is pathetic.

'The dash is frequently employed in a very capricious and arbitrary manner, as a substitute for all sorts of points, by writers whose thoughts, although, it may be, sometimes striking and profound, are thrown together without order or dependence; also by some others, who think that they thereby give prominence and emphasis to expressions which in themselves are very commonplace, and would, without this fictitious assistance, escape the observation of the reader, or be deemed by him hardly worthy of notice.'

It is all only too true; these are the realms of Chaos, and the lord of them is Sterne, from whom modern writers of the purely literary kind have so many of their characteristics. Wishing for an example, we merely opened the first volume of Tristram Shandy at a venture, and 'thus the Anarch old With faltering speech and visage incomposed Answered':

—Observe, I determine nothing upon this.—My way is ever to point out to the curious, different tracts of investigation, to come at the first springs of the events I tell;—not with a pedantic fescue,—or in the decisive manner of Tacitus, who outwits himself and his reader;—but with the officious humility of a heart devoted to the assistance merely of the inquisitive;—to them I write,—and by them I shall be read,—if any such reading as this could be supposed to hold out so long,—to the very end of the world.—Sterne.

The modern newspaper writer who overdoes the use of dashes is seldom as incorrect as Sterne, but is perhaps more irritating:

There are also a great number of people—many of them not in the least tainted by militarism—who go further and who feel that a man in order to be a complete man—that is, one capable of protecting his life, his country, and his civil and political rights—should acquire as a boy and youth the elements of military training,—that is, should be given a physical training of a military character, including...—Spectator.

It must be added, however, that Beadnell himself helps to make things worse, by countenancing the strange printer's superstition that (,—) is beautiful to look upon, and (—,) ugly.

Under these circumstances we shall have to abandon our usual practice of attending only to common mistakes, and deal with the matter a little more systematically. We shall first catalogue, with examples, the chief uses of the dash; next state the debatable questions that arise; and end with the more definite misuses. It will be convenient to number all examples for reference; and, as many or most of the quotations contain some minor violation of what we consider the true principles, these will be corrected in brackets.

  1. Chief common uses.

    1. Adding to a phrase already used an explanation, example, or preferable substitute.

      1. Nicholas Copernicus was instructed in that seminary where it is always happy when any one can be well taught,—the family circle.—B. (Omit the comma)

      2. Anybody might be an accuser,—a personal enemy, an infamous person, a child, parent, brother, or sister.—Lowell. (Omit the comma)

      3. That the girls were really possessed seemed to Stoughton and his colleagues the most rational theory,—a theory in harmony with the rest of their creed.—Lowell. (Omit the comma)

    2. Inviting the reader to pause and collect his forces against the shock of an unexpected word that is to close the sentence. It is generally, but not always, better to abstain from this device; the unexpected, if not drawn attention to, is often more effective because less theatrical.

      4. To write imaginatively a man should have—imagination.—Lowell.

    3. Assuring the reader that what is coming, even if not unexpected, is witty. Writers should be exceedingly sparing of this use; good wine needs no bush.

      5. Misfortune in various forms had overtaken the county families, from high farming to a taste for the junior stage, and—the proprietors lived anywhere else except on their own proper estates.—Crockett.

    4. Marking arrival at the principal sentence or the predicate after a subordinate clause or a subject that is long or compound.

      6. As soon as the queen shall come to London, and the houses of Parliament shall be opened, and the speech from the throne be delivered,—then will begin the great struggle of the contending factions.—B.

    5. Resuming after a parenthesis or long phrase, generally with repetition of some previous words in danger of being forgotten.

      7. It is now idle to attempt to hide the fact that never was the Russian lack of science, of the modern spirit, or, to speak frankly, of intelligence—never was the absence of training or of enthusiasm which retards the efforts of the whole Empire displayed in a more melancholy fashion than in the Sea of Japan.—Times. (Add a comma after intelligence)

    6. Giving the air of an afterthought to a final comment that would spoil the balance of the sentence if preceded only by an ordinary stop. Justifiable when really wanted, that is, when it is important to keep the comment till the end; otherwise it is slightly insulting to the reader, implying that he was not worth working out the sentence for before it was put down.

      8. As they parted, she insisted on his giving the most solemn promises that he would not expose himself to danger—which was quite unnecessary.

    7. Marking a change of speakers when quotation marks and 'he said', &c., are not used; or, in a single speech, a change of subject or person addressed.

      9. Who created you?—God.—B.

      10. ...And lose the name of action.—Soft you now!
      The fair Ophelia!

    8. With colon or other stop before a quotation.

      11. Hear Milton:—How charming is divine Philosophy!

      12. What says Bacon?—Revenge is a kind of wild justice.

    9. Introducing a list.

      13. The four greatest names in English literature are almost the first we come to,—Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton.—B. (Omit the comma before the dash)

    10. Confessing an anacoluthon, or substitution of a new construction for the one started with.

      14. Then the eye of a child,—who can look unmoved into that well undefiled, in which heaven itself seems to be reflected?—Bigelow. (Omit the comma)

    11. Breaking off a sentence altogether.

      15. Oh, how I wish—! But what is the use of wishing?

    12. Doubled to serve the purpose of brackets. It gives a medium between the light comma parenthesis and the heavy bracket parenthesis. It also has the advantage over brackets that when the parenthesis ends only with the sentence the second dash need not be given; this advantage, however, may involve ambiguity, as will be shown.

      16. In every well regulated community—such as that of England,—the laws own no superior.—B. (The comma should either be omitted or placed after instead of before the second dash)

      These are a dozen distinct uses of more or less value or importance, to which others might no doubt be added; but they will suffice both to show that the dash is a hard-worked symbol, and to base our remarks upon.

  2. Debatable questions.

    There are several questions that must be answered before we can use the dash with confidence. First, is the dash to supersede stops at the place where it is inserted, or to be added to them? Secondly, what is its relation to the stops in the part of the sentence (or group of sentences) that follows it? does its authority, that is, extend to the end of the sentence or group, or where does it cease? Thirdly, assuming that it is or can be combined with stops, what is the right order as between the two?

    Beadnell's answer to the first question is: The dash does not dispense with the use of the ordinary points at the same time, when the grammatical construction of the sentence requires them. But inasmuch as a dash implies some sort of break, irregular pause, or change of intention, it seems quite needless to insert the stop that would have been used if it had not been decided that a stop was inadequate. The dash is a confession that the stop will not do; then let the stop go. The reader, who is the person to be considered, generally neither knows nor cares to know how the sentence might, with inferior effect, have been written; he only feels that the stop is otiose, and that his author had better have been off with the old love before he was on with the new. There are exceptions to this: obviously in examples 9, 10, 11, 12, and 15, where the dash is at the end or beginning of a sentence; and perhaps also in sentences of which the reader can clearly foresee the grammatical development. In example 7, for instance, it is clear that a participle (displayed or another) is due after never was &c.; a comma after intelligence is therefore definitely expected. So in example 6 we are expecting either another continuation of as soon as, or the principal sentence, before either of which a comma is looked for. In examples 2 and 3, on the other hand, the sentence may for all we know be complete at the place where the dash stands, so that no expectation is disappointed by omitting the comma. The rule, then, should be that a dash is a substitute for any internal stop, and not an addition to it, except when, from the reader's point of view, a particular stop seemed inevitable.

    It must be admitted that that conclusion is not very certain, and also that the matter is of no great importance, provided that the stops, if inserted, are the right ones. More certainty is possible about the combination of stops with the double dash, which we have not yet considered. The probable origin of the double dash will be touched upon when we come to the second question; but whatever its origin, it is now simply equivalent to a pair of brackets, except that it is slightly less conspicuous, and sometimes preferred on that account. Consequently, the same rule about stops will apply to both, and as there is no occasion to treat of brackets separately, it may here be stated for both. The use of a parenthesis being to insert, without damage to the rest of the sentence, something that is of theoretically minor importance, it is necessary that we should be able simply to remove the two dashes or brackets with everything enclosed by them, and after their removal find the sentence complete and rightly punctuated. Further, there is no reason for using inside the parenthesis any stop that has not an internal value; that is, no stop can possibly be needed just before the second dash except an exclamation or question mark, and none at all just after the first; but stops may be necessary to divide up the parenthesis itself if it is compound. Three examples follow, with the proper corrections in brackets:

    17. Garinet cites the case of a girl near Amiens possessed by three demons,—Mimi, Zozo, and Crapoulet,—in 1816.—Lowell. (Omit both commas; the first is indeed just possible, though not required, in the principal sentence; the last is absolutely meaningless in the parenthesis)

    18. Its visions and its delights are too penetrating,—too living,—for any white-washed object or shallow fountain long to endure or to supply.—Ruskin. (Omit both commas; this time the first is as impossible in the principal sentence as the second is meaningless in the parenthesis)

    19. The second carries us on from 1625 to 1714—less than a century—yet the walls of the big hall in the Examination Schools are not only well covered...—Times. (Insert a comma, as necessary to the principal sentence, outside the dashes; whether before the first or after the last will be explained in our answer to the third question)

    The second question is, how far the authority of the dash extends. There is no reason, in the nature of things, why we should not on the one hand be relieved of it by the next stop, or on the other be subject to it till the paragraph ends. The three following examples, which we shall correct in brackets by anticipation, but which we shall also assume not to be mere careless blunders, seem to go on the first hypothesis.

    20. The Moral Nature, that Law of laws, whose revelations introduce greatness—yea, God himself, into the open soul, is not explored.—Emerson. (Substitute a dash for the comma after himself. Here, however, Emerson expects us to terminate the authority at the right comma rather than at the first that comes, making things worse)

    21. I ... there complained of the common notions of the special virtues—justice, &c., as too vague to furnish exact determinations of the actions enjoined under them.—H. Sidgwick. (Substitute a dash for the comma after &c.)

    22. There are vicars and vicars, and of all sorts I love an innovating vicar—a piebald progressive professional reactionary, the least.—H. G. Wells. (Substitute a dash for the comma after reactionary)

    It needs no further demonstration, however, that commas are frequently used after a dash without putting an end to its influence; and if they are to be sometimes taken, nevertheless, as doing so, confusion is sure to result. Unless the author of the next example is blind to the danger that two neighbouring but independent dashes may be mistaken for a parenthetic pair, he must have assumed that the authority of a dash is terminated at any rate by a semicolon; that, if true, would obviate the danger.

    23. It is a forlorn hope, however excellent the translation—and Mr. Hankin's could not be bettered; or however careful the playing—and the playing at the Stage Society performance was meticulously careful.—Times. (Insert a dash between bettered and the semicolon, which then need not be more than a comma)

    But that it is not true will probably be admitted on the strength of sentences like:

    24. There may be differences of opinion on the degrees—no one takes white for black: most people sometimes take blackish for black—, but that is not fatal to my argument.

    On the other hand, we doubt whether a full stop is ever allowed to stand in the middle of a dash parenthesis, as it of course may in a bracket parenthesis. The reason for the distinction is clear. When we have had a left-hand bracket we know for certain that a right-hand one is due, full stops or no full stops; but when we have had a dash, we very seldom know for certain that it is one of a pair; and the appearance of a full stop would be too severe a trial of our faith. It seems natural to suppose that the double-dash parenthesis is thus accounted for: the construction started with a single dash; but as it was often necessary to revert to the main construction, the second dash was resorted to as a declaration that the close time, or state of siege, was over. The rule we deduce is: All that follows a dash is to be taken as under its influence until either a second dash terminates it, or a full stop is reached.

    Our answer to the third question has already been given by implication; but it may be better to give it again explicitly. We first refer to examples 1, 2, 3, 6, 13, 14, 24, in all of which the stop, if one is to be used, though our view is that in most of these sentences it should not, is in the right place; and to example 16, in which it is in the wrong place. We next add two new examples of wrong order, with corrections as usual; the rules for stops with brackets are the same as with double dashes.

    25. Throughout the parts which they are intended to make most personally their own, (the Psalms,) it is always the Law which is spoken of with chief joy.—Ruskin. (Remove both commas, and use according to taste either none at all, or one after the second bracket)

    26. What is the difference, whether land and sea interact, and worlds revolve and intermingle without number or end,—deep yawning under deep, and galaxy balancing galaxy, throughout absolute space,—or, whether...—Emerson. (Remove both commas, and place one after the second dash)

    A protest must next be made against the compositor's superstition embodied in Beadnell's words: As the dash in this case supplies the place of the parenthesis, strictly speaking, the grammatical point should follow the last dash; but as this would have an unsightly appearance, it is always placed before it. This unsightliness is either imaginary or at most purely conventional, and should be entirely disregarded. The rules will be (1) For the single dash: Since the dash is on any view either a correction of or an addition to the stop that would have been used if dashes had not existed, the dash will always stand after the stop. (2) For the double dash or brackets: There will be one stop or none according to the requirements of the principal sentence only; there will never be two stops (apart, of course, from internal ones); if there is one, it will stand before the first or after the last dash or bracket according as the parenthesis belongs to the following or the preceding part of the principal sentence. It may be added that it is extremely rare for the parenthesis to belong to the last part, and therefore for the stop to be rightly placed before it. In the following example constructed for the occasion it does so belong; but for practical purposes the rule might be that if a stop is required it stands after the second dash or bracket.

    27. When I last saw him, (a singular fact) his nose was pea-green.

  3. Common misuses.

    1. If two single independent dashes are placed near each other, still more if they are in the same sentence, the reader naturally takes them for a pair constituting a parenthesis, and has to reconsider the sentence when he finds that his first reading gives nonsense. We refer back to example 23. But this indiscretion is so common that it is well to add some more. The sentences should be read over without the two dashes and what they enclose.

      Then there is also Miss Euphemia, long deposed from her office of governess, but pensioned and so driven to good works and the manufacture of the most wonderful crazy quilts—for which, to her credit be it said, she shows a remarkable aptitude—as I should have supposed.—Crockett.

      The English came mainly from the Germans, whom Rome found hard to conquer in 210 years—say, impossible to conquer—when one remembers the long sequel.—Emerson.

      As for Anne—well, Anne was Anne—never more calm than when others were tempestuous.—Crockett.

    2. The first dash is inserted and the second forgotten. It will suffice to refer back to examples 20, 21, 22.

    3. Brackets and dashes are combined. It is a pity from the collector's point of view that Carlyle, being in the mood, did not realize the full possibilities, and add a pair of commas, closing up the parenthesis in robur et aes triplex.

      How much would I give to have my mother—(though both my wife and I have of late times lived wholly for her, and had much to endure on her account)—how much would I give to have her back to me.—Carlyle.

    4. Like the comma, the dash is sometimes misplaced by a word or two. In the first example, the first dash should be one place later; and in the second, unless we misread the sentence, and this is another case of two single dashes, the second dash should be two places earlier, and itself be replaced by a comma.

      Here she is perhaps at her best—and in the best sense—her most feminine, as a woman sympathizing with the sorrows peculiar to women.—Times.

      The girl he had dreamed about—the girl with the smile was there—near him, in his hut.—Crockett.

    5. Dashes are sometimes used when an ordinary stop would serve quite well. In the Lowell sentences, the reason why a comma is not used is that the members are themselves broken up by commas, and therefore demand a heavier stop to divide them from each other; this, as explained in the early part of the chapter, is the place for a semicolon. In the Corelli sentence, it is a question between comma and semicolon, either of which would do quite well.

      Shakespeare found a language already to a certain extent established, but not yet fetlocked by dictionary and grammar mongers,—a versification harmonized, but which had not yet...—Lowell.

      While I believe that our language had two periods of culmination in poetic beauty,—one of nature, simplicity, and truth, in the ballads, which deal only with narrative and feeling,—another of Art...—Lowell.

      We were shown in,—and Mavis, who had expected our visit did not keep us waiting long.—Corelli.


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