From Lingua Franca (Language and writing in academe.)
In language, a shibboleth is a usage that members of a certain group engage in not for meaning or elegance but in order to recognize each other (and exclude everybody else). Sometimes it reflects the state of the language decades or centuries before; other times it doesn’t have even that justification.What are your shibboleths, and, more importantly, are you at least aware of them?
Mine include em-dashes with spaces (see below), minimal capitalization, and, when writing for specialist readerships, the uninhibited use of the sorts of acronyms and abbreviations that my readers use in their own writings.
Here's Ben again:
As it happens, the Quartz article included my own personal favorite shibboleth: “Farther refers to physical distance, while further describes the degree or extent of an action or situation. ‘I can’t run any farther,’ but ‘I have nothing further to say.’” True to form, M-WDEU demurs, pointing out that further and farther are historically the same word, and that both have been used by the best writers in both contexts for centuries. (However, the most recent citation for farther-meaning-additional is Edith Wharton, 1920: “He became aware that Mr. Jackson was clearing his throat preparatory to farther revelations.”)
Anne Curzan on Dashing Through.
Once you start using the dash in your writing, it can be hard to stop. I’m talking about the em-dash here — that punctuation mark that is so helpful at linking phrases and clauses that don’t seem well served by a comma, semi-colon, or colon.
Most style guides provide a good amount of leeway in terms of how the dash can function — it can function like a colon (as it did right there), parentheses (as it did in the first sentence of this paragraph), or a comma (as it did in the second sentence of this post).
The dash has a certain flair to it in its informality and its versatility. It makes a parenthetical a bit more prominent — a bit less parenthetical — than parentheses. It adds more sentential importance to an additional thought or an afterthought than a comma can do.