Linguists call our ability to shift between registers to adjust to the people we’re talking to “code-switching.” You don’t talk to your pals the same way you talk to your grandmother, speak to your lover the way you speak to your employer—or at least you shouldn’t.

Experienced readers do the same thing with the punctuation of their texts. If you read British murder mysteries, as you should, you adjust automatically to the British convention of putting periods and commas outside quotation marks. If you pick up an U.S. book, you automatically adjust to the reverse.

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You don’t even notice that you’re doing it, unless you’re one of those cranks carrying on about how one system of punctuation is supposedly more “logical” than the other. Give it a rest.

When you read American newspapers, you make that adjustment to some significant differences in punctuation. Where everyone else in the world uses italics for book titles, operas, movies, television series, ships, court cases, epic poems, and other places, your newspaper sets them off with quotation marks. That is because the Associated Press, which cannot transmit italics to all its subscribers, specifies quotations rather than italics in its stylebooks, which newspapers commonly follow. (And because inserting italics before computerized typesetting used to be troublesome.)

The AP is also unable to transmit square brackets, so it uses parentheses to indicate interpolated matter in quoted material.

That leaves journalists parenthesis-shy. So how do they indicate parenthetical material? They use the dash as all-purpose punctuation. Instead of using commas or parentheses to set off secondary material in a sentence, they use dashes. They get dash-happy.

This is regrettable, because a dash is supposed to indicate a break in continuity, and using dashes to set off some ordinary appositive phrase cheapens the dash and robs it of its inherent staccato drama. It becomes punctuation you stop noticing.

(Don’t get me started on writers who use a hyphen when they mean an em dash—you know how I get.)

And if you look at online news sites, you can see how many of them have carried newspaper punctuation onto the internet, where there is no obstacle to their following conventional practice with italics, square brackets, and more. Old habits die hard.

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