2

I was taught, perhaps erroneously, and certainly many decades ago, that the double (em) dash can be used to deal with putting one sentence inside another.

"If f is continuous on the closed interval [a,b] and differentiable" – "Fire!" shouted Professor Smurdley's pet student, and sure enough the waste basket was ablaze – "and differentiable on the open interval (a,b)", continued Smurdley quite unfazed by the interruption.

Is this sentence punctuated correctly?

9
  • 2
    In a literary context, like a novel, different speakers are usually given separate paragraphs. The most common way of indicating an interruption like this one would be (using “//” as a paragraph marker): “If f is continuous on the yadda yadda –” // “Fire!” shouted a student. // “– and differentiable on the blah blah”, continued Smurdley”. But you mention sentences in the question, rather than speech, so I'm not sure if you're thinking about regular parenthetical statements which—as this sentence shows—are normally set off by dashes. Aug 21, 2016 at 15:14
  • @JanusBahsJacquet But in your case perhaps '...' would be better than the '–'.
    – Řídící
    Aug 21, 2016 at 15:34
  • 2
    @Keepthesemind Both could be used, but an ellipsis would give more of an impression that the speaker was actually interrupted and stopped speaking, whereas the dashes indicate that the interjection was simultaneous to and ‘contained in’ a speech flow that doesn't actually stop at any time. (Unless by ‘my case’ you're referring to “parenthetical statements which—as this sentence shows—are normally set off by dashes”, in which case ellipses are not normally used. Parentheses may be used instead there, though.) Aug 21, 2016 at 15:39
  • Where is that quote from? Aug 21, 2016 at 15:41
  • 1
    Though a pair of dashes is one of the accepted ways of setting off a parenthetical, this usage is quirky, but I think effective. Anyone arguing it was 'wrong' would be (a) arguing from the law of punctuation rather than the spirit, and (b) probably calling a rule-of-thumb a 'law'. Aug 21, 2016 at 16:10

2 Answers 2

1

Smurdley repeats the words 'and differentiable', indicating that s/he was interrupted. (Note that leaving out the bits between the dashes leaves a sentence that doesn't make sense.) Therefore I think it would be better to write:

"If f is continuous on the closed interval [a,b] and differentiable ..."

"Fire!" shouted Professor Smurdley's pet student, and sure enough the waste basket was ablaze.

"... and differentiable on the open interval (a,b)," continued Smurdley quite unfazed by the interruption.

(I also switched the ", to ,".)

1
  • 1
    Sorry, but I prefer the original. If it had been a non-fiction piece I would agree with you but, for me, the dashed interruption emphasises the imperturbability of the professor and adds to the comic effect.
    – BoldBen
    Sep 20, 2016 at 18:10
-1

This is mostly a style issue. What do you want your readers to read? Your example is a mess. I read it twice before I had a clue what was going on. I can't imagine it getting through a fiction editor these days.

Professor X said, "If we separate the functions, we can differen--"

"Fire!" shouted Mary, his prized student.

Without pause, Professor X continued, "--tiate between the energy operator E-Psy and its first derivative."

3
  • 1
    I disagree that the example in the question is a mess. It simply needs to be split into paragraphs and have the dashes moved inside the quotes. Your version would definitely not get past editing with double hyphens used instead of dashes. It is also, I would say, worse in two ways: 1) It removes the immediacy and staccato-like pace of the interruption by moving the resumed speech away from the interruption and injecting the descriptive sentence before it; and 2) It changes what actually happens. In the original, the professor stopped and then resumed (with repetition); in yours, he doesn’t. Nov 19, 2016 at 20:24
  • For clarification, my intent is to use an em-dash, not a double dash. Ellipses can be used instead of dashes, but The Chicago Manual of Style suggests that ellipses indicates to readers a "trailing off" or "trailing in," but not contiguous speech. I'll admit adding ""his prized student" may not be prudent for the situation.
    – Stu W
    Nov 19, 2016 at 22:26
  • OP means a pair of containing dashes – to offset the parenthetical – not a bit of DIY punctuation. Nov 20, 2016 at 16:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.