Think back to all those years you spent in Elementary and Secondary school, and then even on to college. What classes did you always have to take every year? English and Math, of course.
I’m a firm believer that the three R’s—reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic—are absolute essentials. Common sense tells me this is a no-brainer. Of course we have to learn how to read, write and do math! How else are we supposed to function in a professional world without them?
But when you think back, how often did you sit in your English classes thinking, “What do I care what a dangling participle is? What difference does it make whether my clause is dependent or independent? When am I ever going to use this?” (Most likely, there were a few expletives in those sentences somewhere, and you were cursing your English teacher.)
Believe it or not, you use your language skills every single day. How many emails do you have to write? How many reports? Letters? Notes? Now, of those, what kind of language do you use when you’re writing to clients, versus when you’re writing to your supervisors, versus the coworkers you manage? My guess is that you’re much more careful about how you sound when you’re writing to your clients and supervisors. To that end, it’s important that you convey your ideas clearly, and that means using correct grammar.
In my mind, grammar is simply the structure of the English language, the rules of how it’s put together. All of you architects and structural engineers out there can certainly appreciate the fact that you can’t hold up a roof without the proper structural supports. Our language is the same—you can’t convey your intended meaning if you’re not writing it properly.
Now, I’ll admit it—I am an English teacher. I happen to think that dangling participles are hilarious and I think both independent and dependent clauses are equally cool. But as I edit and I’m explaining to my subject matter experts why I made a change the way I did, I never use those grammatical terms. I just explain in plain language. In Grammar Corner, I’ll do the same, and perhaps you’ll be able to include my advice in your next email.
Wait for It—
The dramatic pause. That ever-elusive, difficult-to-punctuate absence of sound, indicating a separation in the speech pattern after an uprising inflection in the sentence preceding it. The English language has many different kinds of punctuation to indicate interruptions, including the comma, colon, semicolon and the dash, to name a few. Of all of them, the dash can be the most difficult to understand. To complicate this even more, there are two kinds of dashes to choose from: the en dash (–) and the em dash (—).
For many writers, it is confusing to decide whether to use a dash at all. I decide by listening to what the pause sounds like, in combination with the inflection of the sentence. A super-short pause or a change in the tone of the sentence only deserves a comma—short, quick and to the point. But, a long, elegant dramatic pause deserves—wait for it—a nice, long piece of punctuation to go with it; that’s when I use an em dash.
An en dash is most often used to indicate a range of inclusive numbers. I heard once that the most important piece of information on a person’s tombstone is the dash between the dates. It may seem tiny and insignificant, but that little dash is the thing that represents the whole of the person’s life—the important part. That thought may seem a bit macabre, but 2 – 1 it helps you remember the function of the en dash.
And in case you were wondering why they are named as they are, the measure of the en dash is as long as the capital letter N, and the measure of the em dash is as long as the capital letter M. (Go ahead and type them in a column, now—you know you want to. Try different fonts, too.)