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It happens a fair bit in old novels— Dickens, and the like— but you sometimes read a passage like this:

It was the winter of 180—, and the ice was still on the pond.

Or

She sent of her reply to Mr. Henry —, of East London.

So then:

Does — mean...?

a) I (the author) don't know, and it won't ever be important that you know either
b) I do know, but it isn't all that important to be specific
c) I do know, but it is confidential and you shouldn't know
d) I originally wrote that his name was Henry Morgan, but the fellow was all out of the letter "O" when he typeset it, so he added the dash; not me.
e) Something else altogether, that makes sense to do it this way

If it is a work of fiction, why doesn't the author just make up a date or a name? It's not like anyone reading is going to fact-check them.
I think that I've seen this in works of non-fiction, as well, which why it bugs me so much.
I could be deluded,however, so I rely upon the readers of Chit Chat to enlighten me.

Also: If you are reading a passage aloud and encounter that situation, what do you do? Say "Henry Dash"? Say "Henry", and then leave a long pause before continuing? Say "Henry", and then wink at the audience? Make up your own last name for the guy, and hope that it doesn't come around again after you've forgotten what you used?
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Billy McBoatface
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I always take it to mean "This is fiction, so rather than put in a person, place, or year that would say something wrong about reality, or put in a person/place/year that you'll know doesn't exist, I'll just put in an em dash."

When I think of it that way, it always works. It did seem to be popular in the 19th century.
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wmshub wrote:
I always take it to mean "This is fiction, so rather than put in a person, place, or year that would say something wrong about reality, or put in a person/place/year that you'll know doesn't exist, I'll just put in an em dash."

When I think of it that way, it always works. It did seem to be popular in the 19th century.


So when you read it, in your mind are you saying, "She sent her reply to Henry so-and-so, in East London." ?
What do you do with dates? "It was the year 18 hundred and something..." ?
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MABBY wrote:
wmshub wrote:
I always take it to mean "This is fiction, so rather than put in a person, place, or year that would say something wrong about reality, or put in a person/place/year that you'll know doesn't exist, I'll just put in an em dash."

When I think of it that way, it always works. It did seem to be popular in the 19th century.


So when you read it, in your mind are you saying, "She sent her reply to Henry so-and-so, in East London." ?
What do you do with dates? "It was the year 18 hundred and something..." ?

Yeah, pretty much.

Or you'll see "She lived in —shire, not far from London...", and I'll put in "She lived in somethingshire, not far from London...".
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I always thought it was a "the names [and dates] were changed to protect the innocent" sort of thing. A conceit that these are real people and dates the author is talking about (even though we all know they aren't), so he's following the rules of propriety by not revealing them. I assume that if this was done in a non-fiction work, then the withholding would have been genuine and necessary. The fictional stuff was just mimicking that.

Maybe this was common shorthand in newspaper articles and such, rather than labelling a report as coming from unnamed sources or something similar. If so, that may explain why it was so common in fiction. But yeah, I've noticed it and it always struck me as strange.
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MABBY wrote:
It happens a fair bit in old novels— Dickens, and the like— but you sometimes read a passage like this:

It was the winter of 180—, and the ice was still on the pond.
Had HE also gone on too 'inspire' the "No-shit, Sherlock" novels as well? WERE it stated that this was Spring, or Summer WITH that 'pond condition' denoted thusly, perhaps then it might have been 'denoticeworthy', and 'moi' suggests he shouldn't "give up" his nightly 'Comedy Routine' down at the local establishment for some "Imbibe & IMPROV".
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GROGS, I'm surprised I never see the em dash in your posts considering the diversity of your offerings. Don't you want to protect the innocent?
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MABBY wrote:
It happens a fair bit in old novels— Dickens, and the like— but you sometimes read a passage like this:

It was the winter of 180—, and the ice was still on the pond.

Or

She sent of her reply to Mr. Henry —, of East London.


I think there are two different intentions. In the first instance, the writer is suggesting a time period but wants to avoid a specific date. "180—" might be used because the writer does not want the Napoleonic wars to intrude into the story, but does want an early 19th century milieu. i.e. by being a little unclear about the date the author tells us George III is King (hurrah?) and William Pitt is A Big Deal but we are left unclear whether Trafalgar has happened.
I think it is also a hint that although the story has a setting in time, the history of that era is only background, not particularly important.

In the second case, I believe it is to avoid accidentally giving a character the same name as a real person, and to encourage a sense that the character could be anyone. "This is a person, not a particular person". It is rarely used when naming significant characters.

MABBY wrote:
Also: If you are reading a passage aloud and encounter that situation, what do you do? Say "Henry Dash"? Say "Henry", and then leave a long pause before continuing? Say "Henry", and then wink at the audience? Make up your own last name for the guy, and hope that it
doesn't come around again after you've forgotten what you used?

I was taught to leave a very short pause, then keep reading.

For extra fun, have a look at Ulysses. IIRC, Joyce uses them at the start of sentences to show when a character is shouting.
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Drew1365 wrote:
Yeah, I always assume it's supposed to suggest a sort of verisimilitude.

"This really happened [wink wink] but I'm leaving off details about times and names to protect identities [wink wink]."

Curiously, the suggestion that "This really happened" seems more common in older fiction than in novels of more recent vintage.
Always felt it was kind of the opposite, I want to give this a semblance of "true story", but it's not realy.
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My wife has the belief that it is used to protect a real person or perhaps another real person with the same name so that there would be no slander.

She thinks that newspapers that used to have a social section/ gossip column would have to print things like, "Henry M-- was reportedly seen leaving the Strongfellows Club at 12:3-- last night, hand in hand with Miss Trudy R--."
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Actually, a bit of all of those - and do not forget the simple substitution of an initial for a name without a dash.

It was a common convention for long enough that the original purpose was expanded and diluted and mutated by usage.

A common thing with species homo _s



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Ozludo wrote:
I think there are two different intentions. In the first instance, the writer is suggesting a time period but wants to avoid a specific date. "180—" might be used because the writer does not want the Napoleonic wars to intrude into the story, but does want an early 19th century milieu. i.e. by being a little unclear about the date the author tells us George III is King (hurrah?) and William Pitt is A Big Deal but we are left unclear whether Trafalgar has happened.
I think it is also a hint that although the story has a setting in time, the history of that era is only background, not particularly important.

In the second case, I believe it is to avoid accidentally giving a character the same name as a real person, and to encourage a sense that the character could be anyone. "This is a person, not a particular person". It is rarely used when naming significant characters.


This is exactly what I was thinking, but couldn't formulate such a succinct explanation.

I recall that in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, she refers to "...the -----shire Militia" on multiple occasions. She needed a military unit so there would be soldiers for the young ladies to swoon over, but not a specific unit, as then its movements could be traced and it might have been nowhere near the vague area she indicates for the fictional village of 'Longbourne'.
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