September 11, 2017
How to annoy copy editors and influence, I don’t know, somebody?
by Susan Rella
The unsung hero of readability is not grammar. It is not font choice, nor pica size. Nay, verily; that which transforms a collection of words into the elegiac beauty of artful language is: punctuation! Seriously. Go ahead and write a bunch of total crap. If it’s punctuated perfectly, no one will know the difference.
And the most bestest punctuation of them all? The triumvirate, holy trinity, sexy threesome known as the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. Apart from adding complex clarity to a sentence, phrase, or idea—with one diminutive line!—dashes and hyphens have an added, all-important benefit. They make anyone and everyone who knows how to correctly use them the smartest goddamn bastard in the room. If you don’t believe me, check out this op-ed — from the Gray Lady herself.
Speaking of being the smartest people in the room, permit us to drop some dash knowledge on you, in as pedantic a way as is possible: An em dash can add an aural pause to a written phrase (let us be clear — this sort of dash should not be overused), and can also replace a set of parentheses—just like so—when you want to add non-essential information to a sentence in an unobtrusive way. An en dash is used to show range (ex: on a scale from 1–10, how much does this blog post make you want to slap me?), sure; but what makes it really cool and pretentious is its ability to join a prefix to a proper open compound (ex: pre–Melville House, no one would ever have given a blog post like this an actual fucking platform). A hyphen is just a boring piece of shit that joins two closely related words (ex: maybe whichever of you clowns penned this garbage should stick to their middle-school newspaper) (it is also, apparently, the best foam mattress in a box).
But as helpful as dashes are, sometimes even they cannot solve the woes a production editor encounters. No, sometimes you get a novelist who thinks that a comma, in between every word, almost, makes the novel more, well, conversational. Sometimes, you get into very polite throwdowns over whether readers will “know” the “meaning” of a word or phrase if it’s not set off by “quotation marks.” Sometimes, an editor wants a word hyphenated on the cover, but not in the interior. Sometimes, your art director insists that the line break in the most important word of the title in the flap copy is unavoidable, but you know the real reason is that she’s mad at you for giving her too much candy. (These are all purely hypothetical scenarios, by the way.)
What is the intrepid production editor supposed to do then? How are these typographical hurdles to be crossed? Readers, fear not. I have a solution. May I present you with my not-fully-fleshed-out new concept in punctuation, the magnificent eh dash.
The eh dash (also known as the “ehh dash,” the “ehhhh dash,” and the “IDGAF dash”) is for those pesky times when no punctuation can solve your problems. It’s the dash de facto for any and all author-editor-publisher-copyeditor impasses. It is the correct dash to use when you have absolutely no goddamn idea which dash to use. It’s what you type when Amazon says your book isn’t in stock even though you literally didn’t sleep for seventy-two hours getting the sonuvabitch edited, designed, typeset, proofread, and off to the stupid printer. It’s how you correctly mark up British em dashes on cover mechanicals, which is so ridiculous because British em dashes aren’t even em dashes, they’re just en dashes with spaces before and after, and yet Hart’s Rules still lists this en-dash-not-em-dash rule under the header Em rule because they’re pissed they didn’t win the war or something. It’s the proper response to the blog curator when he tells you to hurry up and write your dumb post about punctuation that no one cares about because what even is an en dash and why are you here. [Editor’s note: This did not happen. Susan is a respected member of the MobyLives community.] It is freedom, it is poetry, it is our savior against suffering and the answer to our pain. It is the purest possible expression of zero fucks left to give.
I propose it look something like this:
And now it is up to you, dear readers, to make this new punctuation a part of our new typographical lexicon. Yes, that’s sort of an oxymoron, but, you know what? Shut¯\_(ツ)_/¯the¯\_(ツ)_/¯fuck¯\_(ツ)_/¯up is what. It’s up to you to show the world you won’t be pigeon¯\_(ツ)_/¯holed by how They tell Us to punctuate. It’s up to you to say, “Yes, dammit, I may not have ever understood the distinction between an em dash and an en dash¯\_(ツ)_/¯and if there is such a a thing as an en dash, when the hell do I use a hyphen?¯\_(ツ)_/¯but I know that I am miserable with the world in general and I refuse to spend even one more second perfecting this paragraph, vive la résistance!”
It is up to you¯\_(ツ)_/¯nay, to all of us¯\_(ツ)_/¯to show this world precisely how few craploads we care about basically anything anymore, ever. And to do that in the most condescending, snooty, holier-than-thou way as possible.
Susan Rella is the managing editor at Melville House, and a former bookseller.