Today I’m going to talk about my favorite grammatical mark—the dash. It’s my opinion that people don’t use dashes enough. Perhaps this is because dashes are seen as old-fashioned, or perhaps because people don’t quite understand them. On the old-fashioned front, I get it; read English texts from the past and authors throw around dashes like we throw around “like” and “literally” today. Case in point would be Emily Dickenson, who my high school English teacher said was married to dashes. Her writing is full of them—perhaps even too many of them—and no, Dickenson never married, which is probably why my teacher thought the joke was funny.
The above paragraph shows the two easiest ways to use dashes. I don’t want to get into types of clauses and other things which make eyes glaze over. However, many students today seem to know how to use semicolons, so in my classroom I try to point out that dashes and semicolons can be used in similar ways. I think students now understand semicolons more than students in the past because of the internet. I see things like “tl;dr” all the time. Also, there’s the movement where semicolon tattoos commemorate a time when a person’s story could have ended but where the individual chose to keep going. Maybe you’ve seen that on the internet as well.
Semicolons and dashes mark places where sentences could end, so they’re similar. Though dashes don’t make for distinctive tattoos. Now, the second main way dashes can be used: to set off “nonrestrictive sentence elements.” Such asides in a sentence can be set off with commas, like this, though dashes give you more emphasis. And that’s two of the three points I wanted to cover today. And now for the third: DASHES ARE NOT HYPHENS! Don’t confuse the two! Except, since keyboards don’t have dash keys you usually have to make two hyphens and then word processors turn them into a dash. So sorry for the yelling—it was just to wake you up.
Hyphens are small and they generally join words, like in “Spider-Man.” Dashes are longer, and there are two main types. “En” dashes are most often used with spaces, and they get their name from originally being the width of a typed “N.” “Em” dashes are used without spaces, and they get their name from originally being the length of a typed “M.” Both types of dashes have some particular uses. Em dashes, for example, can be used to indicate dialogue. When telling students about this I’ve never had a good example text, since it’s so rare. But low-and-behold, last week a student came to me with a copy of Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, and now I’m set.
Paton uses dashes instead of quotation marks, but also for whatever reason it looks like he also has either a lot of internal dialogue or a lot of Austen-esque free indirect discourse that isn’t marked by anything at all. This confused my student enough that he gave up on Paton’s novel, but it looks like Cry, the Beloved Country is incredibly well regarded so now it’s in my “summer” pile. After I read it I’ll probably start using dashes instead of quotation marks, which should make our blog pretty unique! Joking, but if you’ve read Paton’s work I’d love to hear your thoughts. And hopefully if you are still awake I’ve inspired you to try using a dash—or five—in your writing!
–Jeff and Leah