Stop it, dash it

15 May

Having talked about one of Fowler’s ideas that caught on widely across the English-speaking world, here’s another idea he championed that didn’t go anywhere at all.

In Modern English Usage (mine is the revised edition by Gowers; it may be slightly different in the original version), HW writes as follows on the subject of parenthesis symbols in the lengthy section “Stops”:

“1. Parentheses may be indicated in any one of four ways: by square brackets, by round brackets, by dashes, and by commas …

2. After the second bracket or dash any stop that would have been used if the brackets or dashes and their contents had not been there should still be used.”

Well, after brackets, of course. That’s something that, infrequent though it is (and it is fairly infrequent), most people remember to do.* But does he really mean it should be done after dashes as well? He surely does:

“After the second bracket this is sometimes forgotten; after the second dash it is seldom remembered, or rather, perhaps, it is deliberately neglected as fussy. But, if it is fussy to put a stop after a dash, it is messy to pile two jobs at once upon the dash, and those to whom fussiness is repugnant should eschew the double-dash form of parenthesis except where no stop can be needed.”

As ever, there are some worked examples, showing sentences without the required stops and then a note (here in red) indicating where they should go:

“So far as it is true – and how far it is true does not count for much – it is an unexpected bit of truth (read much – , it). | If he abandons a pursuit it is not because he is conscious of having shot his last bolt – that is never shot – it is because … (read never shot – ; it is).”

So, just to reiterate what he’s suggesting: if you insert a parenthetical remark inside dashes at the end of a clause – something like this one –, you have to include at the end both the dash that ends the parenthesis and the punctuation mark that would otherwise have terminated the clause (in this case the comma).

In 18 years of editing, I’ve never seen anyone even try this, let alone defend it when challenged – which they could easily do by pointing to the book and saying “It’s in Fowler”, just as those who observe the which/that distinction can.

You can see why it hasn’t caught on; it does indeed look fussy. And faced with the looming prospect of a missing stop or unwanted elision, there are usually several options for rewording available. Certainly, the second of Fowler’s examples would be much happier broken into two sentences:

“If he abandons a pursuit it is not because he is conscious of having shot his last bolt: that is never shot. It is because …”

On the other hand, you might argue, if we put the stops in after the brackets, why aren’t we doing it for the dashes too?

I don’t know if this practice was more prevalent in the punctuation-heavy Victorian prose with which Fowler grew up. But precisely nobody does it now, which I think says something about how even the most authoritative prescriptivist needs to win hearts, minds and the vote of popular usage before starting to have any influence on the language.

For all the occasional descriptivist anxiety about rules being “imposed”  on a language, there’s no Academie Anglaise to mandate any of these ideas. A language writer makes a suggestion, or perhaps even claims a rule, in a book. The idea, perhaps, gets passed on in school as a basic tip for the benefit of non-specialists who will be dropping English as a subject as soon as they can. In desperation, perhaps, faced with a class of inattentive 12-year-olds, the teacher simplifies and toughens the idea into an absolute – “you should never start a sentence with ‘and’!”. Perhaps some of them remember that on the rare occasions that they sit down to write. Perhaps it even enters the collective consciousness about the language.

But that’s all that ever happens. There is no “imposition”. If there were, surely Fowler would have been imposed in toto, and we would all be punctuating our interjections with scrupulous care. But we aren’t – which persuades me to think that prescriptivism’s great popular successes, like which/that, are almost as much of an inexplicable, descriptivist phenomenon as slang and meaning change.

So, who knows?  It might be worth experimenting with the idea here on the blog to see if, belatedly, it might catch on. Get ready for a lot of sentences that, though lengthy – and who is to say that length is not  a virtue? –, are punctuated beyond all possibility of confusion.

* I’ve remembered to do it in this sentence, for example.

11 Responses to “Stop it, dash it”

  1. Gavin May 16, 2013 at 1:53 pm #

    A good read, Ed, and an interesting article. Although I – who frequently use dashes and (round) brackets (to my eternal shame) – am in favour of dropping all stops after both, except of course a full stop after a bracket. They look fussy (as Fowler says) and the reader takes a pause anyway, which is after all the writer’s intention.

    • edlatham May 16, 2013 at 2:19 pm #

      You radical! But I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the way it goes in the future, just as the full stop is disappearing after the ellipse …

      • Gavin May 16, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

        And good riddance to it! How many full stops does it take till we know … (?)

  2. Picky May 16, 2013 at 6:48 pm #

    The passage in the First Fowler is not very different from the one in Gowers’ Second Fowler, although checking it reminded me of another strange punctuation habit in First Fowler: the placing of a space (a fixed space, I think) before the semi-colon, colon, exclamation mark, and question mark. I imagine that must have been Hart’s Rules at the Clarendon Press at the time, rather than a Fowlerism like always using an ampersand for ‘and’.

    You may be surprised to learn that Fowler’s instructions about stops after parentheses lived on at least until the 1990s and Burchfield’s Third Fowler:

    “Fowler (1926) insisted that after a second dash ‘any stop that would have been used if the … dashes and their contents had not been there should still be used’. He was right, but such a circumstance seldom arises.” Which I think is an odd statement.

    • Picky May 16, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

      And David Crystal in his lovely 2009 edition of First Fowler: “This kind of double punctuation mark is indeed considered ‘fussy’ these days, and would generally be avoided.”

    • edlatham May 16, 2013 at 6:59 pm #

      That is interesting! And that is, indeed, an odd statement – one can invent sentences like that almost at will, and they’re not all that forced or unnatural.


  1. Who they? | Ten minutes past deadline - May 16, 2013

    […] hisher, heesh, hizzer, shehe, h’se, tey, shem  and all the others have got nowhere (because, as may have been observed before, not even the most eminent language-improvers were ever in a position to “impose” an […]

  2. Dashed if I won’t | Ten minutes past deadline - September 10, 2013

    […] the discussion a few months ago about Fowler’s commas-and-dashes-together idea – his insistence that a subordinate clause […]

  3. Just a dash | Ten minutes past deadline - August 29, 2014

    […] as we have discussed before, took a strict line on parentheses in Modern English Usage, advising as […]

  4. The progressive prescriptivist | Ten minutes past deadline - June 23, 2015

    […] of a point of weakness in the language and its determination to do something about it, it is almost Fowlerian in spirit; indeed, it calls to mind Fowler’s quote in Modern English […]

  5. Happy anniversary | Ten minutes past deadline - April 3, 2018

    […] Usage, Fowler suggested dozens of improvements to written English, some of which caught on: some, but not all. In the 1920s, a BBC committee invented dozens of words to describe new phenomena in modern life, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: