More Than an Interruption — the Dash!

Margie Wakeman Wells The Comma, The Dash 7 Comments

Because we see it so frequently, we tend to think of the dash as being synonymous with an interruption. We will be more accurate if we think of the dash as marking a break in the sentence structure, that is, indicating a sentence that got started and just didn’t get finished — for whatever reason.

Specifically, let’s look at this construction:

…Q     The car that was in the left lane — was it the one that you feel caused this accident?
…Q     This photograph I am holding — was this the one you took?

Note that, in the second part of the sentence, we have a pronoun that refers back to the noun we were talking about. The word it refers back to car. The word this refers back to photograph.

What is “The car…left lane” in the sentence? What is “This photograph…holding” in the sentence? Well, it is really nothing yet, and it doesn’t get to be anything because that first part of the sentence does not get finished. It does not really turn into a sentence.

So what is correct punctuation? A dash.

Rule: Use a dash for broken sentence structure, for a sentence that starts and does not get finished.

So often we see a comma in place of the dash in a transcript. Is the comma okay? Could it be correct? No, not really. We have no rule that says a comma shows a break in sentence structure. That is what we have a dash for.

Happy punctuating!



Comments 7

  1. Hey there, Margie.

    Well, let’s have a little chat here, my friend. Though you and I agree on the overwhelming majority of punctuation issues, where we most differ, it seems to me, is in the areas of the rhythm and cadence of the spoken word. For example . . .

    You gave these two examples as requiring dashes:

    …Q The car that was in the left lane — was it the one that you feel caused this accident?

    …Q This photograph I am holding — was this the one you took?

    Where you see the examples above as requiring dashes because of broken sentence structure, I see the words before the dashes (in both examples), as being introductory to the question being asked.

    Where you see a sentence that got started and just didn’t get finished, I see perfectly acceptable examples of logical sentence structure. The speaker knew precisely what he wanted to ask, and he asked it — quite reasonably and without a break in thought, as far as I’m concerned.

    I submit that there is a natural, rhythmic flow to these sentences (when a comma is used instead of the dashes that you prescribe), a flow that I consider to be harmed greatly by the needlessly heavy intrusion of dashes into sentences that, were they punctuated with commas, would be easier to read and to understand than they are with the dashes.

    When the speaker says, “The car that was in the left lane,” I consider those words to function as a natural seque into the words that follow — “was it the one that you feel caused this accident?”

    In court reporting, we consistently deal with poor speakers, those who can’t seem to get three words out of their mouth before stopping, changing course, backtracking, starting over again, correcting themselves, injecting random thoughts, etc. On those occaions, dashes are immensely helpful, and they’re really required. Your advice on this, though, could very well have the unintended consequence of giving birth to a truly frightening increase in the number of dashes inserted into transcripts, so much so that I doubt very seriously that most of those in the reporting community will heed that advice.

    Disclaimer: If BG/GP represented Mount Everest, I would be down at the base camp, looking up, and asking, “What is this pebble doing here?” (And I’m not talking about the rocks in my head, good buddy.)

    Have a marvelous weekend, Margie.

  2. I agree that we have a proliferation of dashes because of interruptions. If these “false starts” — I know you would not probably agree with that name for them — are very short, I agree that commas might work.

    Q Ron Harper, was he there?
    A Yes.
    Q Joe Walker, was he there?
    A No.

    Dashes in a series of questions that look like this are probably overwhelming.

    My issue, dear friend, as it always is, is the grammar that is going on. There are 20 functions for a noun in English. In

    …the car that was in the left lane — was it the one that caused the accident?

    what is the function of “car”? Where does it fit? If you were diagramming this sentence, where does the opening section fit in the diagram?

    I would submit that the only function “car” might be filling is as an appositive to “it.” If that is the case, it is in a very strange place for an appositive and doesn’t really fit the essential/nonessential role for appositives.

    It is that pesky grammar stuff that keeps getting in my way! If it has no function in the sentence, then it must be separated from the sentence with a dash.

    And I agree that most reporters use a comma here and are comfortable with it and have not even considered what might be going on in the sentence.

    I am sure that Alaska and cool weather are the envy of many here in the “lower 48.” We in Southern CA are blessed with an ideal 70 degrees this morning.

    Take care.


  3. Winco Foods — you were a truck driver for them also?
    Winco Foods. You were a truck driver for them also?

    I’m working on a depo where the attorney asks questions like this quite often. I was using a comma, but it didn’t seem quite right for the situation.

    1. Post

      I believe it should be a dash as the beginning is a thought that does not get finished.

      Winco Foods — you were a…?

  4. Margie, it wasn’t like she was restarting or rephasing or interrupting her thought though. This was how she handled these types of questions all through the transcript:
    The Pet Center — how long were you there?
    Winco Foods — how long did you work for them?
    Staples — did you have any trouble while you were working there?

    Do you still think it would be a dash and not a colon, comma, or period?
    Sorry! I just want to be sure!

  5. Post

    I still think it is a dash. Of the other choices, the only one would be a comma — though again I think it should be a dash.

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