I’ve been getting a lot of questions about faltering and stuttering in dialogue and dash usage.
It can get pretty confusing which to use when. It all comes down to what industry you’re writing in, but you should be checking a style guide right for the type of work you’re doing. One of the most common guides are indicated below and is used for fiction, some non-fiction, some online formatting, and some academic work. Other guides may have decided on a different course, so make sure you know which one is right for you. Don’t know? Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), or check with your communications department, publisher, editor, or organization you’re writing for.
Some things you should know:
- The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is the resource to use as a writer for your questions. They have an online forum which offers a lot of solution/discussion if you pay for a subscription (it is fairly reasonably priced.) If you’re like me though, you can order a hard copy of the book online or find it in some bookstores.
- Faltering speech is equivalent to trailing off or lengthy pauses, “I. . . hmm. . .” (ellipses with spaces as per CMS)
- Stuttering speech is more jarring and jerking, “I—I—I don’t know!” (em dash, convention/CMS)
- An endash and double punctuation is used in unique circumstances
- Hyphens/regular dash should only be used for compound words or names, spelling out letters, or separate certain numbers
Here’s a great resource for you that summarizes what the Chicago Manual of Style says. (Note: she uses 16th edition, I use the most recent 17th edition right now, but the usage is the same in both editions.)
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It is a lot of work to write a book, and authors and editor’s everywhere can never, no matter how hard they try, be perfect. It is a fool’s errand to consider perfection the goal.
What ultimately matters is that the story shines through in a clear and well-written manner. We do our best for readers. We want to put our best foot forward, but no matter how hard we try someone will always find something we missed.
Plus, we all have off days (not to be confused with days off, which no writer nor editor ever truly gets).
It doesn’t help that English has many dialects (Canadian, American, British, Australian, and other more localized dialects) and subjective choices when it comes to grammar, syntax, and punctuation (it is why we use or create style guides as editors).
For example, the first sentence of this post could:
- have a comma after the first ‘and’;
- use a semicolon;
- be separated into two sentences;
- use a different conjunctive adverb other than ‘and’;
- be left as it is.
All of those are technically correct.
A writer gets the story out, then rewrites to improve clarity and hone the story. An editor navigates the technicalities, works with the author’s style, uses the publisher’s or appropriate style guide, and keeps up with current conventions to find the right balance between story, style, and structure. All of that goes into a single sentence.
It isn’t uncommon for the brain to fill in gaps or try to predict what is next as you read, or for your vision to go blurry after reading something for hours or for the tenth time. Remember the meme about reading jumbled words? Cambridge explains some of the science and psuedo science here.
Follow the link below to some famous books that readers still loved (or hated to love or loved to hate) with errors.
Meanwhile I am going to be in a corner trying not to worry about the errors in my own books….
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