A Dash of Controversy

"Controversy" — Karl Henning

“Controversy” — Karl Henning

Following on my previous dashing post, which I have updated for greater clarity, I was reminded while doing my latest editing commission today that there is an aspect I did not cover. First, though, my heading has made me want to touch again on the controversy controversy.

In earlier days I recall that the word was invariably pronounced con-TROV-er-see, which is what I was taught. Then, radio and TV announcers suddenly switched to CON-troh-verse-ee. There seemed to have been a brief return to the original, but lately the latter has predominated again.

I believe the former was the more logical pronunciation, mainly for the reason that it is not ‘contrAversy’ where the new pronunciation would make sense. ‘Contra’, as meaning ‘against’, would take the emphasis. However, with the word spelt correctly, for ‘contro’ to be singled out is illogical. Admittedly a case could be made for the ‘CON’ form when one considers the development to ‘controversial’. There, ‘con-TROV-er-shall’ would sound silly. It becomes ‘contro-VER-shall’ indeed. Still, I am not persuaded that this necessarily means that the shorter ‘con’ form should CON-form!

Thoughts from the groundnut gallery?


Now, em dashes with other punctuation. The question is whether commas or semi-colons should be kept when using dashes to insert another thought in a sentence, and if so where they should be placed.

A sample sentence:

Many of those present, using strong language, disagreed completely.

Now, insert the other thought:

Many of those present, using strong language — and in that part of the country it can be very strong — disagreed completely.

Here it has lost one comma, replaced by the dash, as the Chicago Manual of Style, among others, agrees should happen.

Numbers of other authorities argue, however, that the original punctuation should remain, so that if the section between dashes is taken out the sentence is still correctly punctuated. They have a valid point. It can arise that a difference in meaning will occur without the second comma, even though this doesn’t arise in my example.  (It would, on the first comma, if the sentence were something like:  Every weekend now he runs, away from home, to experience more professional tracks elsewhere.)

If it is decided to keep the full original punctuation, the question arises as to where to place it:

Many of those present, using strong language, — and in that part of the country it can be very strong — disagreed completely.


Many of those present, using strong language — and in that part of the country it can be very strong ––, disagreed completely.

Now the brain can get boggled. The first version looks neater, as it avoids jamming a comma against a dash. However, the section between dashes relates to the ‘language’ clause, not the ‘disagreed’ one, so the break is happening in the wrong place, there.

My conclusion:

Keeping the comma is preferable, and that comma should appear in the clause it relates to, as in the second version ‘—,’ .

Or, avoid the problem altogether with:

Many of those present disagreed completely, using strong language — and in that part of the country it can be very strong.

With question or exclamation marks, much the same applies, but it is often better to use …? ellipses …!

© September 2016 Leslie Hyla Winton Noble (WordPress)

12 thoughts on “A Dash of Controversy

  1. roughseasinthemed

    The sort of post that only picky people pick holes in …
    I missed thedashing one, soz about that.
    Here goes:
    Not sure why you are referencing Chicago as I understand SA, in theory, should technically follow British style rather than Americanese, although popularly seems to veer USian.
    Regardless, both British and American—when using an em dash—don’t have spaces around.
    I think combining commas and dashes is tortuous. One or the other suffices.
    Ellipses convey a different sense to dashes, whether en or em, and commas.
    There. I think I’ve successfully managed to dusagree with most points …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. colonialist Post author

      I frequently use the Chicago Manual as one reference, because when it agrees with e.g. Oxford then a rule is fairly universal, and there are times when it makes more sense than the British convention.
      I noted that both of the above agreed with you on the spaces, although there are many sources that feel, as I do, that spacing is neater. On reflection, though, in my case it is probably due to the fact that in the past I have lazily inserted hyphens instead of dashes (not even en dashes), and there they become confusing indeed without spaces. This is the sort of punctuation I would never impose while editing, unless there was a meaningless mixture, when I would suggest a choice be made.
      *sigh* I may need to reconsider my lovely revolutionary ideas if I can get over my abhorrence at having an unseparated dash. It isn’t part of either word, after all, and if it is to indicate a break it might as well do a proper job of it.


      1. roughseasinthemed

        Chicago is more detailed. Americans like things spelled out, so yes, I use it too.
        I tend to offer authors the advised style and up to them to choose what they want.
        Unseparated dashes are interesting. My extremely old version of Jane Eyre is full of them.
        My personal preference is for an en dash – like that, but in conversation I do quite like the interruption of the em—but each to our own.
        Hyphens instead of dashes drive me up the wall.


    1. roughseasinthemed

      It’s an editor thing. We love to witter about such like. Commas, colons, semis, dashes, ellipses? Makes our exciting day 😀
      For inf, as you are Brit in southern parts, you shd def be following British style, good man/chap/person.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. colonialist Post author

      You are in the fortunate position of not needing to give serious consideration towards the creation of such Everests from antheaps. Talking of that, the argument rages as to whether the latter should be ant heap, ant-heap, or antheap. Word doesn’t like the latter, but is perfectly happy with anthill.


    1. colonialist Post author

      I wrote this piece thinking aloud — um, I mean, asoft while scribbling — but after further cogitation am not entirely happy with conclusions reached, apart from deciding avoidance of any constructions containing such conundrums is a good idea.


  2. Pingback: More Punk: Chew; Hate; Shun! | Colonialist's Blog

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