"But--" Boris tapped his pocket-- "your hotel." Is this use of dashes correct? Donna Tart uses this construction all the time. The speaker is interrupted with a dash, then the narrator is interrupted with a dash, then the speaker finishes. Not a PAIR of dashes, but two singles. Here's another:

"Yes, but--" wiping his nose--"global warming, I suppose." "That said--" he closed his eyes-- "I cannot say about those guys."

  • 2
    It's just a way of getting around the fact that most keyboards only have one way to enter all 3 of the following punctuation marks: hyphen, n-dash and m-dash. (And it's the same as the math symbol for the subtraction sign.)
    – herisson
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 0:16
  • In proper typography, the symbol on the keyboard, "-", is only used for the hyphen. Dashes are a distinct character that must be entered in more complicated ways. If people don't have access to these ways or don't want to take the trouble, two hyphens in a row can be used as a substitute for a dash. See the following question and its answers for more details. english.stackexchange.com/questions/2116/…
    – herisson
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 0:20
  • Martha, Please see answer & comments by Sven Yargs below. An appropriate edit to the question giving it clarity may be in order.
    – Kris
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 11:41
  • On a windows keyboard press "alt" then on the number pad, press 0151 and you should see a nice long dash — just like that one.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 12:04

1 Answer 1


I think it's an odd style decision. Typographically, a double hyphen is equivalent to an em dash, which means that the punctuation in your first example is equivalent to this:

"But—" Boris tapped his pocket— "your hotel."

Paired em dashes serve to break out a word or clause that can be excised from a sentence without causing the sentence to become syntactically faulty. This, however, is what you get when you drop everything from em dash to em dash, inclusive, in your first example:

"But "your hotel."

which seems to have one quotation mark to many. Another way to break out words or clauses is to use parentheses. But if you substitute parentheses for em dashes in the example, you get this:

"But(" Boris tapped his pocket) "your hotel."

and I doubt that anyone, including Donna Tart, would think that punctuating a sentence in that way would be a good idea.

The most unobtrusive way to punctuate the example would be to use commas. The normal U.S. style would put the first comma inside the first close-quotation mark:

"But," Boris tapped his pocket, "your hotel."

The normal UK style, I believe, would put the comma outside that close-quotation mark. If I wanted to use em dashes instead of commas, I would do it this way:

"But"—Boris tapped his pocket—"your hotel."

and if I wanted to use double hyphens instead of em dashes, I would put them in the same places as the em dashes above.

Having said all that, I acknowledge that punctuation is not a matter of grammatical right or wrong. It is extremely flexible and its applications are highly variable. The two most important things to bear in mind when choosing punctuation, I think, are (1) to use it in ways that make your (or the author's) meaning more intelligible, rather than less; and (2) to enforce your punctuation choices consistently enough that readers don't repeatedly find themselves in the position of puzzling over unexplained internal variations.

For example, in two of the three examples you provide, the second double hyphen in the pair is followed by a letter space (pocket-- "your and eyes-- "I) but in the other one there is no letter space (nose--"global). Although most readers won't notice or care about tiny discrepancies like that one, I think that an author who effectively calls attention to his or her punctuation by making unorthodox choices needs to be especially vigilant against erratic enforcement of those choices. Otherwise, the result is distracting—like watching a film in which an actor fades in and out of an adopted accent.

Readers are extraordinarily adaptable, so an author can make extremely odd decisions about punctuation, as Céline did with his endless ellipsis points, and still be thoroughly intelligible. In my opinion, authors who want their ideas, and not their punctuation, to be the focus of their readers' attention would do well to punctuate unobtrusively. But they should strive for consistency in their approach to punctuation, regardless of how flashy or unusual it is.

  • A longer way to say what sumelic said above.
    – Kris
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 6:24
  • @Kris: Actually, no. If you reread the poster's question, you'll see that the issue she's interested in is the unusual position of the double hyphens in the example sentences—not the fact that the sentences use double hyphens instead of em dashes. I believe that she uses the wording "Not a PAIR of dashes, but two singles" to describe the fact that the dashes aren't in the positions you'd expect them to be in if they were simply acting as double hyphens (or em dashes) demarcating something parenthetical. My answer attempts to address that issue, not the one that sumelic's comment focuses on.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 6:39
  • ...To put it another way, what's unorthodox—and potentially objectionable—about each of the three examples that the poster identifies is that the author has embedded the opening double hyphen within a quotation but has paired it with a double hyphen outside the continuation of the quotation. In my view, the intention of the author is still to produce paired double hyphens, but the OP suggests that that may not be the case.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 6:51
  • Just to add a point to your answer. In UK style it is still appropriate to but the punctuation within the brackets. Also, the first part of a "Quotation," should always have a capital letter even if it begins mid-sentence.
    – Jascol
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 8:07

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