A couple of weeks ago, a reader gave me an idea for a writing tip when I incorrectly referred to a hyphen as a em dash. I don’t write these tips just for you: I need them more than anyone. Check out this previous post.
A em dash is a separation in a sentence or an interruption in written dialogue. Think of it as a comma on steroids. A comma indicates a pause, but a em dash is a shout—a related idea coming to make a greater point.
“Uncle Earl did not use the brain he was given—if he was even given one—when he lit the charcoal while leaning over the grill.”
“Ruth was the only person I could trust, but she was indisposed—or was she?”
“I felt the scab on my forehead—the result of another stupid move on my part.”
“That crazy sister of hers—talk about a nut case—just walked in.”
A em dash also indicates an interruption in written dialogue:
“I don’t think she wants anything from you except—”
“I’ve taken care of that stupid Mary Thompson—”
Suddenly the door shot open, and a woman waving a gun stormed in.
Unlike the em dash, the hyphen does not separate; it joins, as when forming a combined adjective.
“A 350-pound gorilla escaped from the zoo and ended up climbing the Washington Monument.”
“Here’s the low-down on that obnoxious guy who just walked into the bar with a cute prairie dog on his shoulder.”
A hyphen is also used to form compound numbers between twenty-one to ninety-nine or fractions such as one-fifth.
“It took the zookeeper seventy-five pounds of bananas to get the gorilla to come down from the monument.
“The obnoxious man was told at least twenty-one times that he was not welcome in the bar—but his prairie dog was.”
Finally, a hyphen can also join a prefix to a word such as bi-polar, co-conspirator, and self-aware.
I always welcome comments as to whether my tips need correcting.
P.S. I taught middle-school for many years. When a student pointed out a mistake I made, I was overjoyed because it was a sure sign she was paying attention.
Kathleen Kaska, Marketing Director
Mrs. Case, my high school English teacher, had black, shiny hair, which she wore in a neat bun held tight by a pencil. Her wardrobe—white tailored blouses, dark pencil-skirts, and black heels—spoke of professionalism—confidence—and no-nonsense teaching, at least that’s how I remember her. If the term “English teacher” was listed in a dictionary, her photo would be next to the definition. She taught me to appreciate literature: Shakespeare; Homer; Dickens. When she read Silas Marner aloud, I gave her my full attention. I identified with Silas and his desire to make good on the evil inflicted upon him. Who wouldn’t say “yea,” to that?
I even enjoyed her grammar lessons—until the day she taught present and past participles. Participles are two of the four verb forms, the other two are the base (present) form and the past form: laugh—laughed; sing—sung; eat—ate. I had no trouble recognizing present participles, which is a verb ending in “ing” (am laughing; am singing; am eating); or even a past participle; a verb, if regular, ending in “ed” (have laughed; have sung; have eaten). What I couldn’t get past was the term “participle.” Mrs. Case should have explained that term for us obsessive learners. When no explanation came, I turned my thoughts back to Eppie, Silas’ ward, and prayed she’d find happiness and marry Aaron.
After all these years, I thought it’s high time I overcame the mental block I have against this term. What helps me in situations like this is to understand the term’s origin. Except for math, which would require a brain transplant—if I have a math question, I ask my sister, math teacher, or my husband who knows everything, except how to dust).
Day one: My lesson began by reading the definition of participle. I dare you to do this. The pain between my eyes started somewhere around the fifth definition. I’m writing five-minutes tips here and I was approaching two hours more confused than when I began. What I learned was that participles come with a lot of baggage. I needed a break. Besides, it was time to make crab cakes, which begins by opening a bottle of wine.
Day two: Clarity comes with a new day, fresh coffee, and a strong determination to keep it simple. The Latin definition of participle means “to share” or “participate.” Merriam-Webster’s definition is “a form of a verb that is used to indicate a past or present action and that can also be used like an adjective. The Oxford American Dictionary agrees with M-W, with the addition of “used to make compound verbs.” Very nice, but I wanted more information and a simpler definition. Here it is in a nutshell: A participle can take the present form, recognizable by its “ing” ending, or the past form with the “ed” if it is a regular verb. Irregular verbs, such as bought, rung, or caught have their own form.
Participles are also modifiers (adjectives that describe nouns, or adverbs that describe verbs), but if the word they are meant to modify is not present, they are referred to as dangling participles or dangling modifiers and they attach themselves to the nearest subject. Here are some examples:
“Jogging down the trail, the rain clouds appeared on the horizon.” Jogging down the trail modifies the runner, but since a runner is not mentioned it sounds like the rain is jogging down the trail. Correctly written: “Jogging down the trail, the runner noticed the rain clouds appear on the horizon.”
“Trying to get to sleep, the raucous party next door kept me awake.” This sentence sounds like the guests were trying to get to sleep. Corrected: “Trying to get to sleep, I was kept awake by the raucous partiers next door.
“Smothered in gravy and cranberry sauce, my grandmother enjoyed her turkey and dressing.” My grandmother never smothered herself with gravy and cranberry sauce (at least not that I know of), so the sentence should read: “My grandmother enjoyed her turkey and dressing, which she covered in gravy and cranberry sauce.”
“Washing the dishes, the chipped glass cut my hand.” The chipped glass was not washing the dishes, I was. “Washing the dishes, I cut my hand on the chipped glass.”
Of course, there’s a lot more to what participles can do and the different forms (baggage) they take, but I’ll save that for another writing tip. Or not. Sorry, Mrs. Case.
Kathleen Kaska, Marketing Director