Must Dash

This week, I wanted to pick up on a small point from last week’s entry about how my use of punctuation differs from what Grammarly considers correct. I’m focussing not on commas, but hyphens and dashes.

There are three main lengths of horizontal line used as punctuation in English. The shortest of these is the hyphen (-), the mid-length is called an en-dash (–), and the third is an em-dash (—). For the purposes of this entry, we’ll ignore the underscore (_) as this is used only for computer programming and other specialist purposes. Now let’s look at how these three marks are used.

Hyphen (-)

A hyphen connects two words or two parts of words together, and touches the letters on either side. It’s done to avoid ambiguity or to suggest a certain pronounciation.

Consider how, ‘I re-sent your e-mail’ communicates something very different from ‘I resent your e-mail.’

You might also note that ‘e-mail’ is hyphenated here, indicating that the stress should be placed on the first syllable. The more common form these days is ’email’, but modern readers understand the pronounciation without the hyphen as a guide.

A hyphen can also be used to show a range; eg, ‘The Hundred Years’ War: 1337-1453′.

En-dash (–)

This takes its name from the width of the letter ‘n’ in the first printing presses, although the width varies on modern machines, and it has several uses.

It can be used as an alternative to the hyphen to show a range; eg, ‘Normal core body temperature: 97–99˚F’. But that’s the only crossover in usage.

On this blog, I frequently use the en-dash in place of brackets – to interrupt one thought with another – and you can easily find them in previous entries. In this case, the dash doesn’t touch the letters that surround it.

You don’t even need to come back to the original thought, as an en-dash will quite happily take the reader in a different direction – and leave them there.

Em-dash (—)

The em-dash takes its name from the width of a letter ‘m’. Like the en-dash, this punctuation breaks up a sentence, but with more urgency.

Recently, I wrote in a comment, ‘There were two blunders—sorry, happy accidents—in the pictures below.’ I could have used en-dashes there, but this construction implies a slightly frantic energy. The em-dash always touches the letters that surround it.

Unlike the en-dash, however, this punctuation mark isn’t suitable for showing a range.

The Grammar Spammer

Every week, Grammarly sends me an e-mail, showering me with praise about how well I’ve written that week. I’ve been using the software for more than four years; it even works in addition to the auto-correct in Microsoft Word and Firefox. As such, the company has collected a lot of data about how I type.

In yesterday’s bulletin, it was noted that I was: more productive than 94% of other users. more accurate than 83%, and using more unique words than 92% of folks.

It also notes my top three mistakes, which are usually minor matters involving punctuation. For example, Grammarly doesn’t favour an Oxford comma as much as I do; conversely, I don’t like the software’s style of writing ‘3 PM’ rather than ‘3pm’.

Which brings me to an important point that software can miss certain errors. Depending on the construction of the sentence, ‘from’ might be interchangeable with ‘form’, when only one is correct.

My best advice on the matter, which I repeat often, is to read out loud what you’ve written to see whether it flows and makes sense. If you don’t have the privacy to do that, a decent substitute is to find text-to-speech software and listen through headphones. If it detects a word out of place, it’ll be obvious when it’s read out.

Either way, spelling and grammar checkers should be used as a safety net rather than an authority, however much praise they heap onto their users.

Footnote to Poettiquette

After last week’s entry about poets attempting to add me on Facebook without permission, a pal commented underneath asking my reasons for not wanting friend requests there. What was intended to be a two-line answer turned into more of an essay. So breaking away from our usual theme of prose and poetry, here it is presented as a footnote to that entry.

In mid-March of last year, just before the virus took a grip, I removed someone from my Facebook friends list. I couldn’t recall the last time we’d spoken, and I wasn’t particularly engaged in what he was posting; I suspect one of us had added the other after a gig.

Within maybe a couple of hours, he’d sent a message asking, ‘Why did you unfriend me?’ which went into the Requests section of Messenger so I was able to ignore it. He then found one of my few public posts and left a comment that he was ‘genuinely concerned’ about me. I told him I was fine, thank you, and left it there. He promptly asked me again why I’d removed him.

When you take someone off your list, Facebook doesn’t tell the other party, so he either must have been checking manually or using third-party software. Either way, I was previously indifferent about the guy; now, I found him creepy. I talked to some other pals about what to do and I ended up hitting the good old Block button.

That’s an extreme example, but it put other contacts under the spotlight. There had always been that contingent who, for example, jumped at every dog whistle in the news or parroted what they’d heard without knowing what they were talking about. There was also a contingent of people who would be a great laugh in real life, then act like an idiot online.

Then when the virus hit, these small and manageable annoyances amplified to a level where I couldn’t tolerate them, particularly those spreading medical misinformation, knowingly or not.

And that’s how and when my no-nonsense policy started. I made a decision to reject all friend requests, placing a clear note in my public profile, which either hasn’t been read or has been ignored many times. Either way, I don’t feel bad about declining, as the warning is there.

I specifically pick on Facebook here. I’ve been using the Internet since 1995, back when it was a lawless place – literally, in a number of ways. The relatively small group of users were expected to make connections across the miles.

Facebook was probably the first site to group users geographically and to restrict access from those outside that group. This made it much harder to cultivate a friends list, so you were effectively stuck with those also in your area. No other major site, as far as I’m aware, ever had that restriction.

That policy has eased off over the years to the extent where you can follow someone without being friends, or be friends and mute their posts, yet there is still an unwritten expectation of mutual following. There are many philosophies on the matter, but in my own view, I don’t want to be friends with someone if I wouldn’t read their updates.

That’s not to say people can’t be friends with me at all. For a start, they’re welcome and encouraged to follow the Hotchpotch open-mike page, which is designed to be public. Folks can also find me (and Hotchpotch) on Twitter, but there should be no expectation of mutual following.


I was invited to take part in a poetry reading on Sunday night, spanning not only the UK but other countries in the Anglosphere.

This was a mammoth four-hour stint, even with a time limit of ten minutes per poet, plus just one five-minute break. My spot was halfway through, but I stayed the whole time because I wanted to listen to the rest of them, most of whom were event hosts like me.

I performed one serious piece and two humorous. Although there was no audible feedback, I could see some of the faces in the crowd and read comments in the chat box. The set seemed to go down well.

At that point, I received a friend request on Facebook. I was glad that someone enjoyed my work enough to make that request. Furthermore, I’d been in a planning group with some of the other performers, so we were acquainted already.

It must also be stated that the public part of my profile clearly states ‘Not open to friend requests’, yet as of Monday morning, I had four requests waiting. One of them sent me a message acknowledging that he’d seen my profile, and was basically trying his luck. I admire his gumption, but I told him he could either follow my Hotchpotch open-mike page or my Twitter account instead.

On the back of this, it occurred to me that when people perform at my events, they might also have the same view, and a lot of folk don’t feel comfortable telling someone to back off. To this end, I’ve added a disclaimer to the open-mike. It’s likely I’ll tinker with the exact wording, but the spirit will be reinforced in event promotions:

Unless consent has been given, the host and contributors are not open to friend requests.

This alone is unlikely to stop the issue; three people have either not read my profile or wilfully ignored it. However, it acts as a pre-emptive reminder to keep some distance from those who don’t want to interact so closely with others.