No Word Left Behind

With WordRake’s fifth anniversary just passed, and the school year just begun, WordRake announces today one of the greatest breakthroughs in the annals of formal education. As of last midnight, WordRake has helped professionals remove 1,994,958,346,719 useless words, which we have collected and saved. As we pass the two-trillion mark today, we will now reverse the WordRake engine and redistribute all of those useless words to those who need them most: The American Student.

Teachers have long required students to write papers of at least five pages—instead of requiring them to write one, tight, evocative paragraph—on the person who has most influenced their lives. Is that fair? Can we really require our students to fill five pages, if we do not supply them with the useless words to do so? WordRake is answering that challenge. Beginning today, WordRake will donate all two trillion useless words to American Education in an ambitious new program: No Word Left Behind.

Under the program, every child in America will receive a ten-year supply of “at all,” “It should be noted that,” “especially,” “bear in mind,” “in order to,” “the fact that,” and thousands of other useless words and phrases. From New York to Los Angeles, Seattle to Miami, every child in the American Education System will be able to avoid writing sentences like:

It made no difference.

and be fully equipped to write:

It should be especially noted that as far as I was concerned, it really made no difference at all to me.

Can you imagine how American Student scores will soar in international education competition? No longer will they have to write:

Benjamin Franklin had a younger sister named Jane.

They now can write:

Indeed, it is common knowledge that Benjamin Franklin had a younger sister who went by the name of Jane.

Oh, the possibilities. The sentence:

Many students realized that the bloody hardships of war had not accomplished Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People.

could become:

It was during this time that many citizens, most particularly students, came to the realization that Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People had not yet been accomplished through the bloody hardships of war.

And:

To remain himself, Joyce rebelled against his fate.

could easily swell to:

That may be all the more true if we bear in mind that Joyce was driven by his fate into many rebellions in order to succeed in being himself.

I am proud of our company, and I am proud to announce further that because of No Word Left Behind, WordRake CEO Jim, our entire engineering team headed by Chief Engineer Scott, and I have been invited by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to meet with her and others in the Department of Education, where we will hand-deliver a packet filled with useless words that all American students can use in their studies. We at WordRake will not rest until every child has all of the useless words needed to compete in school and later in the American business world.

From all of us at WordRake to all of you, thank you from the bottom of our hearts for providing all of those useless words. And may God never cease and desist to Bless America.

Sasquatch on Noah’s Ark

You’re on “Coast-to-Coast” with George Noory, and for one hour you’ve debated George’s other guest, who is an expert on where Noah’s Ark landed on Mount Ararat. He has scripture and physical proof, and never mind that the proof has long been identified as wood splinters from a railroad tie in Long Beach.

After the other guest fields a question about how many sasquatches boarded the ark, George says, “Well, gentlemen, that is a fascinating story. And…to be continued.” The party’s over. George adds, “Thank you for coming on our show,” and you say, “Thanks for having me,” which sounds like your five-year-old daughter leaving a sleepover. We all need a more gracious, eloquent, adult way of saying goodbye on the air. It’s the hardest part of our 15 fame minutes. The trick is to say something that will get us invited back, so we can extend those minutes, because, you must have heard, there will be a prize for the most minutes.

So what do you say? “It’s my pleasure, George. You ask great questions.” I don’t think so. You say, “Great, George, great, a transcendent show, a real pleasure to be with you. Next time, I want to talk to your three million listeners about the word ‘as.’” See what I mean? Now George gets excited. “Will one hour be enough, or should I tell my producer to block out two?” That’s the way it works.

When George cancels his other guests, and you return the next night, tell the audience, “Treat the word ‘as’ like you treat the words ‘in’ and ‘of’ (Tip: “Whether Pigs Have Wings”): look around it for words you can remove with no loss of meaning.”

The text of 25(b) of IT-479 is as follows:

Defendants included a Declaration and attached as an exhibit a copy of . . . .

As you know, under the Agreement . . . ,

The following are regarded as part of your normal overhead.

As such, the anti-retaliation provision protects employees from . . . .

If George doesn’t go for the “as” idea (hard to imagine, but just in case), suggest two hours on “Disruptive Innovation.” That’s my transparent segue into reminding you that Harvard Law School recently identified WordRake editing software as “Disruptive Innovation,” helping professionals (and anyone else who writes) enhance the quality of their work and the speed with which they deliver it. As one of the WordRake patent lawyers put it, “Being disruptive is a good thing?”

P.S. At the push of a button, WordRake would have made four of these five edits for you.

Low-Flying “Ls”

From deep in my soul, I apologize for writing this Tip. So many of you have asked me about this, however, it begs for comment, and I have a weakness for the inane. But this is the lamest, least important writing Tip I have ever written, or will ever write. It’s not even a “writing” Tip; it’s a “typing” Tip.

Our story begins in a classroom on the second floor of a terracotta-tiled, stucco-walled, Spanish Colonial, open-air high school, with coconut palms in the courtyard, in the middle of what is now downtown Ft. Lauderdale. My parents thought I should learn how to type, so I was in summer school with 20 other soon-to-be sophomores. Before the summer was over, I could bang out 17 words a minute with no more than sex or seven mistakes. And I learned that after every period, you hit the space bar twice.

Our typewriters came with “fixed-pitch” Courier font – an “i” took up the same horizontal space as an “m” – which made sense for those who engineered typewriters: shift the carriage the same distance with each keystroke. I didn’t know this then, nor would I have cared, but even typesetters at book and magazine publishers had long squeezed two lead slugs into the tray after a period. Typists merely mimicked traditional typesetting by hitting the space bar twice.

But about the time I learned to do that, typesetters in publishing were cutting back to a single space between sentences. They called it “French spacing.” It looked better. (Remember the French can’t serve raspberry sorbet without shaping it into a large, frozen dahlia.) Yet many years after that typing class, I typed the manuscript for my first book on a plastic, manual, portable Olivetti with a ribbon striped red and black, and I still left two spaces after each Courier period. Everybody did.

Although IBM in 1941 gave us the first “proportional-pitch” electric typewriter, which made a page look like it was printed rather than typed, not until the early 1970s did we start shifting to proportional-pitch fonts, first on a “Daisy Wheel” and, by the end of the 1980s, on the fly. With publishers dropping the second space and proportional-pitch fonts smoothing the blocky appearance of Courier, most of us began to space but once after a period.

Debate continues (“rages” would be hyperbolic) over whether one space or two is more readable, but typographers agree that a single space between sentences makes the sentences work better visually.

If anyone cares what I think about spacing between sentences, I would use one and keep my sentences looking like they connect rather than float like little word archipelagos. The hardest part will be trying to convince your brain, a creature of habit, to send a different signal to your thumbs.

While we’re in Ft. Lauderdale, I need to resolve something that has bothered me ever since that summer I learned how to type.

Long before lawsuits over the Stanford “Indians” and the Washington “Redskins,” my high school had a mascot in a white sheet we called the “Spirit” of Ft. Lauderdale High. Our nickname was not a race, or an animal, or even an act of god. We were a winged letter of the alphabet. Not much to offend. But imagine the stadium on Friday night, lights bright, grass green and chalk-striped, as the team storms onto the field and the announcer screams into the microphone that heeeeeere come – quick, get the women and children into the root cellar – “the Flying Ls!” Upon graduating and entering the real world, what we believed in so fervently back then, later made little sense. This has sent many of us 800 at-one-time Ft. Lauderdale High School seniors to the couch, confusing our therapists: “I’m a Flying L!”

Thank you; I feel much better.

Save yourself some time; at the end of every sentence, hit the space bar once. And I’ll be back next time with a real “writing” Tip.

Back to School with Her and I

After much pondering and many long discussions with my wife, I have decided to run for President of the United States. To prepare for a long and arduous campaign, I have been practicing making the victory sign with both hands at the same time.

My platform is simple, one plank: I pledge to the American people to wage war on one of the most insidious threats to the American way of life since Ben Franklin flew a kite in a storm. The VFW, NOW, DAR, AIM, MADD, NAACP, ASPCA, MLA, NRA, LBJ, and JFK all support my campaign and have contributed heavily.

The Lesson

We all want the best for our kids. Help them get the best by encouraging them to speak and write correctly. Here’s a humble beginning: no more “Me and himming”:

Subjective Pronouns

I, you, he, she, it, we, they These pronouns refer to people and things that do stuff, like go to movies. They are subjects:

She and I went to a movie.

Objective Pronouns

me, you (again), him, her, it (again), us, them These are the people and things to which stuff is done, like getting run ragged. They are objects:

Coach ran him and me ragged.

A kid-friendly hint: have them try one subjective pronoun at a time; point out they would never say, “Me (or her) went to a movie.” That’s how they can check: “I went to a movie.” “She went to a movie.” “She and I went to a movie.” They’ll get that.

Same for the objective pronouns: They would never say, “Coach ran he (or I) ragged.” Again, have them try one at a time: “Coach ran him ragged.” “Coach ran me ragged.” “Coach ran him and me ragged.” That’s the tough one; although it’s correct, it sounds weird.

Yes, I am talking about the pervasive, relentless, unmitigated, diabolical flipping around of subjective and objective pronouns. If we do not act decisively, the “me-‘n-himmers” will soon be old enough to procreate. What will happen if a “me-‘n-himmer” hooks up with a “her-‘in-Ier?” Can you imagine the sentences that will come out of the mouths of their offspring? “Me and him bought her and I Jimmy Choo handbags.”

How will I implement my plan? First, I will create youth groups, young women and men who will wear red arm bands with slogans, “Lips that touch bad grammar shall never touch mine.” Stuff like that. I also plan to resurrect the pillory, that thing where you put your head and hands through and they lower the top half, so you look stupid with your head hanging through a hole. I know there’s one in Williamsburg, and I think Boston has a couple.

But I can’t do this alone. I need the help of every adult, especially coaches, teachers, and parents. Tell the kids, “You may say anything you want to around your friends, but you may not sound stupid in this house (on this court, field, track, diamond, in this classroom).” You wouldn’t let them drive on bald tires; don’t let them shoot their futures in the foot by getting used to bad grammar.

Reality check: Most children listen to their parents, but would never let their parents know. When your children climb into their twenties, you will have a lot of good laughs with them, as you discover they were listening the whole time.

Now, parents, if you will, I need a few moments alone with your kids. Are they gone? Okay, kids, here’s the deal: Your parents’ greatest fears are that you will contract some terrible disease, get hooked on drugs, be in a horrific car accident, or use “Me and her” as a compound subject in a college interview.

Fact: When the college interviewer says, “Tell me about your best friend and what the two of you like to do together,” she wants you to say, “Me and him play Destiny and hang out,” so she can quickly cross another name off her long list. Next! Why not ruin her process with, “He and I hitchhiked from Lake George to El Paso to get closer to real Americans, and that experience has helped him and me to understand more about our country. When we were in Appalachia . . . .”

A few more thoughts: Unless you are standing in the shadow of El Capitan or staring at a Leafy Sea Dragon, it’s time to retire “awesome.” Do not use it when you’re working at BCBGMaxAzria and a customer tells you he has correct change. Also, do not have this conversation with yourself while within ten feet of another person: “So he tells me this, and I’m like. And he’s like. So I’m like. You know? Then he goes, ehh. And I’m like, whoa.”

Here’s the cool part about learning grammar: You can correct your parents. Because just between you and me, they do it, too. They need your help. Every time you hear one of them use “me” or “him” (or both) as a subject, tell them they owe you a quarter. For example, “Me and Kelly’s dad are driving to lacrosse this week.” That’s two bits in your pocket. You can make a lot of money, more than you could with a paper route (never mind), and you don’t have to get up so early. You may go now.

Kids are gone now, parents; just us again. So here’s my plan going forward: once we have them (and ourselves) using subjective and objective pronouns properly, we can move on to “could of” and “should of.” Then maybe “lay” and “lie,” or “This is a preposition,” but I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.

In the meantime, please join me in my quest and elect me President of the United States, for the future of our children and our children’s children. And our children’s children’s children. And our children’s children’s children’s children. And anyone alive in 4973.

P. S. As I was writing this Tip, I saw an article on a study by the Pew Research Center that compared the Millennials’ reading habits to those of the Baby Boomers. Guess what? The Millennials read more than we do. And, bless them, they are more likely to say there’s a lot of really great information out there that’s not found on the Internet! Say hallelujah!

The Modality of Lady Gaga

The Dalai Lama told me  to embrace my enemies, to be thankful for them, because only my enemies could bring me challenge, and without challenge, I would never achieve Enlightenment. So I welcomed into my life all manner of obnoxious persons who disagree with me from my porkpie down to my saddle shoes. I feel much better now and have only one stop left on the road to Enlightenment.

The Dalai Lama told me that at the last stop, I would encounter my Pure Self. Asked I, “How shall I know I have arrived?” “Look to the sky,” said he, “for a cloud shaped like Lady Gaga in a dress.” “But which dress?” asked I. Said he, “The one with all the pork chops.” Think about it. It explains everything, how Life is all about living in the layers, the nuance, the many delicate balances of meaning. Or as the Dalai Lama put it, “One man’s wiener is another man’s wienerschnitzel.” (Surprised me, too. I didn’t even know he spoke German.)

At this level of Enlightenment, like you, I transcend to the modal verbs, which help me express the layers, that nuance, those delicate balances of meaning: may, might, can, could, will, would, shall, should, must, ought to. I marvel at how they attach themselves to the main verbs to coax them toward obligation, or necessity, or uncertainty, or possibility, or likelihood, or ability, or permission, or all sorts of contingencies: I go, I should go, I must go. Different modals, different meanings. Yes, Nirvana.

For those of you who have not begun the journey, the Unenlightened, I offer The Meta of Modality: first, modal verbs do not have tenses; second, they do not need to agree in number; and third, they do not conjugate. They just are. The Dalai Lama stands in a corner alone, clapping with one hand.

With so many modals shading the meaning of our sentences, we should understand their role and that we sometimes misuse them; and we should draw distinct lines where the meaning of one modal overlaps the meaning of another: like may, might, can.

I can go. (I have the ability to go.)

I may go. (I have permission to go.)

I might go. (There is a possibility I will go.)

Assign each that meaning, and use it rigidly. When we drift across the line where can also means “permission” and may also expresses “possibility,” we confuse our readers. Which is it? Here’s another trio of modals with which lawyers have wrestled for centuries: shall, will, must. Use each only for a single, narrow meaning:

He shall pay. (A weak word many experts propose we toss. I agree.)

He will pay. (His payment lies in the future.)

He must pay. (The contract obligates him to pay. That’s the one we want.)

Could works well as the “past” of can, but should has little connection to shall; it leans more to the certain side of might. That leaves would and ought to, would being the gateway to a much longer discussion about the subjunctive, but I will spare you; it would only disturb the tranquility of the Now. And ought to? Think of ought to as useless, the Appendix of Modality.

Emenem (Part III of III – The Hyphen)

If you have been sane far too long, and you miss the old days of total insanity, ponder why the Oxford American Dictionary would approve this sentence:

 

THE LESSON

 

Fowler laments having to discuss hyphen usage because, “its infinite variety defies description.” The Chicago Manual of Style tells us, “Probably nine out of ten spelling questions that arise in writing or editing concern compound words.”

 

THE EASY PART – NUMBERS

Use hyphens to separate non-continuous numbers, like phone numbers and Social Security numbers; and to separate compound numbers twenty-one to ninety-nine.

 

THE HARD PART – COMPOUND WORDS

A hyphen signals that two or more words are to be read together as one. Placing a hyphen appropriately can clarify: extra marital sex, a little used car, small business men.

 

Hyphenate when:

 

two or more words must be read as one noun

 

Where would you place the hyphen here?

 

On the Isle of Skye, a short distance from the lodge, lies a large moor reserved for shooting visitors.

 

two or more words must be read as one adjective

 

red-hot, dark-blue, white-haired, sky-high, snow-packed, easy-going, battle-scarred, backed-up, up-to-date. Try it again:

 

As we neared the point, we saw a man eating hammerhead.

 

a prefix must be attached to a word

 

Use a hyphen with prefixes ex, self, all, un, anti, pro, quasi, and the suffix elect. Hyphenate a prefix before a proper noun: un-American.

 

HARD RULES

Hyphenate an adverb followed by an adjective, UNLESS the adverb ends in ly. “A well-dressed woman” is correct; “a nicely-dressed woman” is not.

Hyphenate a compound modifier if it appears before the noun; do not hyphenate it if it appears after the noun: He is a well-known cellist. The cellist is well known.

 

Sometimes, we can replace a hyphen with a preposition: “half-hour intervals” becomes “intervals of half an hour.”

 

Where the first word of a compound is one of two alternatives, leave the first hyphen open. “Our hybrids include both hand- and machine-made parts.” Or repeat the second half: “Our hybrids include both hand-made and machine-made parts.”

 

Check a current dictionary for the latest on hyphenated words.

The half-truth is that the halfback’s running was halfhearted, but the half-wit, who is half-baked, went off half-cocked, and drove the half-track, halfway, for a halfpenny, with his fly at half-mast.

 

This is why Fowler begins his discussion of hyphens, “No attempt will be made here to describe modern English usage in the matter of hyphens; its infinite variety defies description.” Even Lynne Truss, in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, concedes, “In the end, hyphen usage is just a big bloody mess and is likely to get messier.”

 

THE EASY PART – NUMBERS

We use hyphens to separate non-inclusive numbers like phone numbers and Social Security numbers; and to separate compound numbers, twenty-one to ninety-nine.

 

THE HARD PART – COMPOUND WORDS

Fowler explains: “The primary function of the hyphen is to indicate that two or more words are to be read together as a single word with its own meaning.” Churchill once wrote that the hyphen was “a blemish to be avoided wherever possible,” but he added, “except when nature revolts.” Here’s when nature revolts: extra marital sex, the five hundred odd members of the House, a little used car, the nine-millimeter gun owner, small business women. Although a missing hyphen will sometimes help the rest of us get through the day and provide “likes” on our FaceBook page when we circulate it to our seven thousand closest friends, a hyphen properly placed can avoid ambiguity and absurdity.

 

Hyphenate when:

 

two or more words must be read as one noun

 

Dictionaries usually hyphenate for a few decades and then drop the hyphen. Pullover, breakthrough, and holdup all used to be compounds joined by hyphens. Here, you try it; put this hyphen “-“ anywhere you please in this sentence:

 

On the Isle of Skye, a short distance from the lodge, sits a large moor reserved for shooting visitors.

 

two or more words must be read as one adjective

Red-hot, dark-blue, white-haired, sky-high, snow-packed, easy-going, nice-mannered, battle-scarred, backed-up, door-to-door, up-to-date. Here’s another hyphen “-“ to try again:

 

As we neared the point, we saw a man eating hammerhead.

 

a prefix must be attached to a word

 

Nonsense has been combined, but non-stop has not. Postscript has arrived, but post-mortem isn’t there yet. Why bystander but not by-product? Generally, use a hyphen with prefixes ex, self, all, un, anti, pro, quasi, and the suffix elect. If any prefix appears before a proper noun, always hyphenate: un-American.

 

The prefix re sometimes needs a hyphen: re-enter; and sometimes does not: rewrite. But each version can mean something different: re-formed and reformed; re-mark and remark. We use the hyphen to clarify.

 

Except for the Hard Rules below, you likely will not make a mistake by hyphenating or refusing to hyphenate, unless what you write is absurd or ambiguous.

 

HARD RULES

 

Hyphenate an adverb followed by an adjective where the two modify a noun: the now-retreating tide. However, as Churchill pointed out: “Richly embroidered seems to me two words, and it is terrible to think of linking every adverb to a verb by a hyphen.” Within that comment lies a little-known grammar rule: Hyphenate an adverb followed by an adjective, UNLESS the adverb ends in ly.

 

“A well-dressed man” is correct; “a nicely-dressed man” is not.

 

Hyphenate a compound modifier if it appears before the noun; but do not hyphenate it if it appears after the noun: “hard-to-find MG parts” is correct; but “MG parts are hard-to-find” is not.

 

Sometimes you can avoid hyphens by replacing them with prepositions: “half-hour intervals” could become “intervals of half an hour.”

 

When the first word of a compound is one of two alternatives, leave the first hyphen open: “Our hybrids include both hand- and machine-made parts.” Or repeat the second half: “Our hybrids include both hand-made and machine-made parts.” When the first hyphen is left open, it is called a “suspensive” hyphen. but in a job interview, reveal this information only if you prefer to remain unemployed.

 

If you’re not sure whether to hyphenate, use a fairly recent edition of a reliable dictionary. But remember that what appears with a hyphen in a Webster’s 30 years ago might appear in a new Webster’s as one word.

Emenem (Part II of III – The En Dash)

As you know, all grammarians are sadists. You can spot them in elementary school, boiling live frogs. When they reach maturity and start looking for a career, they naturally gravitate toward grammar. No longer satisfied with tying M-80s to the tails of stray cats, they grow up to inflict pain on the rest of us by creating dogma and waiting in the bushes for the rest of us to come along and step in it.

Look! Here’s a pile of dogma right here, the dashes: , , and. Simple, simple, simple little marks, so innocuous, so seemingly innocent; only a sadist would create them, make them look so similar, then call them by different names and use them for different purposes.

THE LESSON

The en dash is the width of a lower case n. We need the en dash for three reasons:

1) to indicate inclusive numbers and words representing dates, time periods, or references: 1962–1975; 2:00–5:00 p.m.; April–June; Chicago Manual of Style, 6.32–6.42; the hyphen isn’t long enough;

2) to leave a date open ended: “Pat Benatar (1953–)”; and

3) to separate “compounds”

(two or more words that act together as a unit) containing “open” elements or elements already hyphenated: “The New York–Boston line”; “the pre-formed–pre-manufactured home”

Caveat

The en dash does not mean “to” or “and”; it may not follow a preposition: do not write “from 2008–2012” or “between Tuesday–Saturday.” Write: “from 2008 to 2012” and “between Tuesday and Saturday.” And we may write, “The store is open Tuesday–Saturday.” No preposition.

How to Make an En Dash

Type a word, hit space, tap “-” twice, hit space again, and type the following word. Microsoft Word will automatically turn that double hyphen into a dash the width of a small case n, or an en dash. Then remove the spaces on either side.

Alternatives: on a PC, go to Insert -> Symbol -> More Symbols -> Special Characters; highlight “En Dash” and click “Insert.” On a Mac, hold down “option” and tap “-.”

If you go back over a century ago to early Fowler, and drop in on the musings of various grammarians every few decades since, right up to Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which I highly recommend, you will see the evolution of thought on “dashes” (I include the “hyphen” here). The en dash has muscled its way onto the page between the other two only recently, as grammarians began to follow the lead of typesetters and publishers.

As we saw last week, we use the em dash, the longest one, to push words apart; as we shall see next week, we use the hyphen, the shortest one, to bring them together. But we needed another dash, the en dash, the one in the middle, to indicate continuing numbers and dates open ended, and to separate “compound” words containing “open” elements or elements already hyphenated. There’s the pile!

EN DASH MECHANICS

The en dash is so named because it is the width of a lower case n, which is half the width of an upper case M—or an em dash. We should not confuse the en dash with the em dash—each has its own function—neither should we confuse it with the hyphen, which is half as wide as an en dash. We will explore hyphens next week.

THE EN DASH

We use the en dash for three things:

First, to separate inclusive numbers and words representing dates, time periods, or references: 1962–1975; 2:00–5:00 p.m.; April–June; Chicago Manual of Style, 6.32–6.42.

Here’s another little pile they’re waiting for us to step in: the en dash does not mean “to” or “and”; it may not follow a preposition: to write “from 2008–2012” is incorrect, and so is “between Tuesday–Friday.” The correct way is: “from 2008 to 2012” and “between Tuesday and Friday.” But we may write, “The store is open Tuesday–Friday,” because no preposition precedes it.

Second, use the en dash when the end date has not yet been determined: “Pat Benatar (1953–).”

Grammar Guru of The Washington Post, Bill Walsh, calls hog-walsh on the en dash; absolutely no need for it; just use the hyphen, a perfectly good separation. I agree, sort of; but there’s this . . .

. . . third situation, which admittedly will not come up often, where one element in a “compound” adjective or “compound” noun is “open” or already hyphenated.

A “compound” is two or more words that act together as a unit. “New York” is an “open” compound. When we combine it with another word to describe “line,” we separate “New York” and the next word with an en dash: “The New York–Boston line.” Where one or both compounds are already hyphenated, we also need to separate them with an en dash: “the pre-formed–pre-manufactured home”

I suspect the en dash will continue to muscle its way onto the page, and it does distinguish in a way the hyphen cannot, so we should try to use it correctly.

HOW TO MAKE AN EN DASH

Type a word, hit space, tap “-” twice, hit space again, and type the following word. Microsoft Word will automatically turn that double hyphen into a dash the width of a small case n, or an en dash. Then remove the spaces on either side.

Alternatives: on a PC, go to Insert -> Symbol -> More Symbols -> Special Characters; highlight “En Dash” and click “Insert.” On a Mac, hold down “option” and tap “-.”

I have said many times that when you get the finer points of grammar correct, you send the impression to your readers (many of whom know the difference) that you are competent and informed about many other things. But don’t wipe your shoes just yet; the pile gets much deeper next week.

Emenem (Part I of III – The Em Dash)

With terrorists, disease, and weird weather threatening life on Earth as we know it, it seemed like a good time to talk about em dashes. If we all start using them properly, perhaps we can shift the earth’s axis just enough that the asteroid hits Adak instead of Birmingham.

 

EM DASH MECHANICS

The em dash and the en dash are not related, even remotely; more on en dashes next week. The em dash is so named because it is the width of a capital “M.” Most authorities require no space on either side of the em dash.

THE EM DASH

The em dash evolved naturally as a punctuation mark that takes us beyond the comma, the colon, and the semicolon. We use it to stagger the structure of a sentence with a sharp stop and parenthetical aside. No other punctuation can do that. But before you use em dashes, first try commas, then a colon, then a semicolon. If one of these works, save the em dash for a more daring break. But this is always the author’s call. Below we see sentences where other punctuation could work, but the authors choose the em dash.

The Lesson

The Basics: the em dash and the en dash are not related. The em dash is the width of a capital “M.” Most authorities require no space on either side of the dash.

The Em Dash’s Job: to stagger the structure of a sentence with a sharp stop and parenthetical aside. No other punctuation can do that.

Before Using the Em Dash: try commas, then a colon, then a semicolon. If one of these works, save the em dash for a more daring break. A fine writer controls our pace with syntax and deft punctuation, which includes using em dashes to break sentences abruptly and nicely splice the pieces back together.

The Single Em Dash: adding a phrase to color a point at the end of a sentence may be set off with a single em dash or a comma, but an em dash pops the point.

References Warn: use no more than one set of em dashes in a sentence; but if done carefully, good writers can handle three or four.

 

To Create an Em Dash: type a word, leave no space, hit the hyphen (“-”) key twice, and, with no space, type the following word. Microsoft Word will automatically stretch the em dash to the appropriate length.

 

THE EM DASH vs. THE COMMA

If the parenthetical aside is closely related to the rest of the sentence, we set it off with commas; if the break is more abrupt, we use the em dash. In Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, Franzen could have used commas in this sentence:

Once he’d convinced them their legs weren’t being pulled—that Vin was actually serious about saving a non-huntable bird—an agreement in principle had been reached.

THE EM DASH vs. THE COLON AND THE SEMICOLON

In this sentence from Colum McCann’s National Book Award–winning, Let the Great World Spin, McCann could have used a semicolon or even a colon:

When he was a boy he had seldom even folded down the pages of his Bible—he had always kept it pristine.

Another example of where a colon or semicolon would have worked comes from Chad Harbach’s highly acclaimed first novel and bestseller, The Art of Fielding:

He seemed to be dressing better too—maybe somebody else was dressing him.

And Franzen could have used a colon or semicolon in this Freedom sentence:

Daylight was leaking in around the curtains—dawn in May came early in the north country.

THE EM DASH SUBLIME

When you start writing critically acclaimed bestsellers and winning National Book Awards, like Harbach, McCann, and Franzen, experiment; use, even create, unorthodox punctuation to transcend, as Tom Wolfe and James Joyce once did, to fascinate us. With syntax and deft punctuation, fine writers control us by setting our pace to their timing. The sentences below illustrate the private domain of em dashes, where other punctuation dare not enter. In each example, the author sharply breaks his sentence and nicely splices the pieces back together with em dashes:

from Harbach:

Schwartz was watching the field too, initially—Arsch took a called strike—but his eyes quickly fell to the concrete floor.

from McCann:

She hated him, the husband—she got caught up in this marriage young—and still she’s got his picture on the bookcase.

from Franzen:

Joey, having discovered that their lake was unidentified on local maps—it was really just a large pond, with one other house on it—had christened it Nameless, and Patty pronounced the name tenderly, sentimentally, “our Nameless Lake.”

ONE DASH OR THREE

What the Chicago Manual of Style calls a “defining or enumerating complementary element,” i.e., a phrase that illuminates a point at the end of a sentence, may be set off with one em dash or a comma; but an em dash pops the point, as Harbach illustrates in this sentence:

He looked, for a moment, wildly old—a decade older than his literal age, two decades older than his usual self.

Most references warn against using more than one set of em dashes in a sentence, but in his classic novel Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis uses three to pull us into the dialogue:

“My name’s Ad Locust—Jesus, think of it, the folks named me Adney—can you beat that—ain’t that one hell of a name for a fellow that likes to get out with the boys and have a good time!”

HOW TO MAKE AN EM DASH

Although it might be there soon, the em dash is not on your keyboard. To create one, type a word, leave no space, hit the hyphen (“-”) key twice, and, again with no space, type the following word. Microsoft Word will automatically stretch your em dash to the appropriate length.

Unless the asteroid is closer than we thought and Bruce Willis has retired, I will be back next week for the inside scoop on the en dash and the hyphen. Please tell everyone you know–we have not a moment to lose.

Gone with the Email (Act IV of IV)

To conclude this four-part series about writing emails, we begin at the end.

When to Quit

The Lesson

When to Quit

When someone emails to you, “I will make sure that gets filed on Tuesday,” do not reply. Once you pass that point where someone will do something, unless you have new information, a suggestion, or a request, let it go. And think twice before cluttering the trail with another “Thanks!” email.

How to Say Goodbye

Keep it crisp and friendly. Not: “Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or need further clarification.” But: “If you have questions, please let me know.” And match your signature to the tone of the email. “Best regards,” “Kind Regards,” or “Warm Regards.” Or just “Best,” or just “Regards.” “Till then” works. “Sincerely” still is nice. So is “Be well.” And you can’t go wrong with just your name.

Why to Proofread

No matter how many times you have already proofread the message, proof it one more time before you fill in the “To:” line and hit “Send.” And make sure you read what is there, not what you think is there. (WordRake for Outlook can help.) Do not rely on spell checkers: “Rental” and “renal” are both spelled correctly; so are “public” and “pubic.”

Remember these email trails?

We’ll talk again at the meeting on Tuesday.
You bet, looking forward to it.
Me too.
Take care.
And you.
Alright.
Okay.

Some people still do this. If you are one, I speak for everyone who knows you: Please stop. When the other person emails, “I will make sure that gets filed on Tuesday,” do not reply unless you have new information, a suggestion, or a request. This brings me to the most ubiquitous email in America: “Thanks!” Reconsider sending this one-word message.

How to Say Goodbye

To impress your business associates with your capability, your attention to detail, and your caring, take it right up to the end by keeping your sign-off crisp and friendly. Instead of:

“Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or need further clarification.”

first, drop “do not hesitate to”; it means nothing; same for “any.” Second, remove the repetition: we ask questions because we need clarification; if we need clarification, we ask questions. Third, put the conditional clause at the beginning of the sentence:

“If you have questions, please let me know.”

Then fit your signature to the email’s tone: “Best regards,” “Kind Regards,” or “Warm Regards.” Or just “Best,” or just “Regards.” “Till then” works. I would like to see us resurrect “Sincerely.” It’s a nice word. My agent Richard signs, “Be well.” I like that, too. Probably the best is just your name.

Why to Proofread

To avoid accidentally sending off an embarrassingly rough draft, you have left the “To:” line blank. (See Tip: “Guess Who’s Coming to Email”). Do not fill it in and hit “Send” until you have proofread. And make sure you read what is there, not what you think is there. This is the bane of everyone who writes: we get too close to our work to see what we have written.

Right after I posted the first piece on emails three weeks ago, WordRake CEO Jim Figel sent me an email:

“Boy, Gary, you’re right about people being less than careful when writing emails.”

Then he included this sentence from an email he had just received:

“I did not received no complaints before we switched to the new program.”

I won’t tell you who wrote that sentence; it’s not important. But let me see if I can figure out what the writer meant to write and how he ended up writing something so obviously ignorant and unlike anything you or I would ever want to send to a client or a colleague. First, I think the writer finished his email and raked it in Outlook (which you can do now). Then he thought of one more sentence, added it, and figured, “I don’t need to rake it again just for one sentence.” Then he remembered WordRake raking a similar sentence:

“I did not receive any received no complaints . . . .”

So he made the edit himself. But he was an incredibly busy guy, distracted, and he made only half the change: “receive” became “received” and “any” became “no”; then he hit “Send.” Does this sound familiar? Of course, I have no way of knowing for sure, but that’s what I suspect happened. The lesson (which I continue to learn myself – thank you, Jim, for reminding me):

No matter how many times you have already proofread the message, proof it one more time before you fill in the “To:” line and hit “Send.” (WordRake for Outlook can help.)

Your best friend might not care, but your client and potential clients, your boss and your colleagues will care, and they will judge you by the errors in your email. (Or, like Jim, relentlessly hound you with reminders and little Smiley Faces.)

And, yes, one more time, the chorus: DO NOT RELY ON SPELL CHECKERS. “Rental” and “renal” are both spelled correctly; so are “public” and “pubic.” You can imagine the rich possibilities lying in wait: AAA Ardvaark Renal Equipment, specializing in augurs. National Pubic Radio.

Next week I’ll be back with another Tip, and in it the word “email” will not appear.

Close Encounters of the Email Kind (Act III of IV)

For the third week we are examining the necessary evil of email, and the wariness with which we must approach this oh-so-informal medium when we use it to conduct our oh-so-important business. Last week we discussed what to put in the four lines of the header. Now we’re looking at the “Whens of Email.”

When to Say “Hi”

In the “Olden Days,” as Millennials refer to the time before email, we opened a letter, “Dear Ms. Reichert:”; now we open emails, “Hi, Amy.” We can already feel the loosening, which is nice, not so stuffy, less Victorian. A “Hi” or “Hello,” as one commentator put it, helps to “warm the recipient.” But if we don’t know the recipient, and especially if we’re asking the recipient for a favor, we can’t go wrong with “Dear Ms. Reichert” followed by a colon and separated from the body, just like an old-fashioned letter.

The Lesson

If you know the recipient well, “Hi” and “Hello” are fine ways to open an email. If you don’t know the recipient, and especially if you’re asking the recipient for a favor, you can’t go wrong with “Dear _____:”.

Email is not private. If you wouldn’t want your neighbors to see it on a billboard, don’t put it in an email.

Before composing a long email, consider picking up the phone or walking down the hall. Often a conversation is more effective and efficient than using email.

To include a longer document, either attach it or compose it in Word and cut and paste it into the email. WordRake for Outlook now allows you to compose an email of any length and rake it right in Outlook.

So you and your recipients can find old emails easily, keep correspondence on the same subject in the same email trail.

Using exclamation points taints your reputation as a smart, reliable person.

Do not use Smiley Faces to convey any part of your message. Emoticons are a lazy form of communication and are often interpreted as unsophisticated or condescending.

If I initiate an email to someone I know, I open with the person’s name followed by a comma and continue on the same line: “Amy, six months ago you asked me to notify you when WordRake for Outlook would be available.”

When I respond to an email, I usually open with a sentence, placing the recipient’s name at the end, so it feels like a natural statement: “Thank you for letting me know, Amy.”

When to Remember That Email Is Not Private

Although many of us will have our 15 minutes of Fame, far more will get 15 minutes of Infamy. Infamy is easier, and you still get your picture in the paper. If you crave one of the two, and you don’t care which (you just want the picture), here’s how to achieve Infamy now: 1) become rich; 2) buy an NBA team; 3) write a racially charged diatribe in an email. Ask Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson.

The recent brouhaha over Levenson’s offensive email illustrates again how comfortable we have become putting our hearts and sometimes our spleens into this too-convenient method of communication. We’ve been using it so long and so reflexively, we sometimes forget The Rule: If we wouldn’t want our neighbors to see it on a billboard, we shouldn’t put it in an email.

When to Pick up the Phone

I know people who spend forty-five minutes composing an email rather than explain and resolve the issue over the phone in five minutes. If your email is going to weigh in at three or four stout paragraphs, especially if it’s sensitive and might require some explaining, pick up the phone. Or walk down the hall. Remember that people will not judge your speech nearly as harshly as they will your writing.

When to Cut and Paste

For that email that must include a longer document, either attach the document or compose in Word and cut and paste the document into the email. WordRake for Outlook is now available, so you can also compose an email of any length and rake it right in Outlook.

When to Keep It in the Trail

Writing is only part of what we do in email. Almost as important is keeping track of what we write so we and our recipients can find it easily. Unless we have good reason to do otherwise, we should keep all correspondence on the same subject in the same email trail.

When to Use Exclamation Points!

Never! Remember the Seinfeld episode! “The Sniffing Accountant!” Where Elaine’s prospective boyfriend! Fails to use an exclamation point! When he takes a phone message from Elaine’s friend! Who just had a baby!!! Using exclamation points conveys the same level of sophistication as the bank teller whose signature is “Gina” with a heart over the “i.” So think about it!

When to Use Smiley Faces

Whether we write a letter, a book, or an email, our “recipient” must interpret our message by reading only our words: we can’t be there to convey “emotional signals” like facial expressions, voice inflection, and body language. But too often in emails, instead of using the right words, we send an ambassador – the emoticon.

A hundred years ago typewriters had the colon, the semicolon, the dash, and the parentheses, all the tools we need to make a Smiley Face; and the people who composed on those typewriters were as clever as we are; but not one ever put a Smiley Face at the end of a sentence. So why do we do it now?

In a 2014 article in Social Neuroscience, one psychology researcher called emoticons “a sort of visual cliché” and “a lazy means of communicating.”