Behold, the Humble Dash

One thing that makes this picture extra noteworthy is that Ms. Dickenson later wore only white

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.

I tell me students that on tests like the SAT if you see dashes, it’s good old Emily

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.

This is actually a Dickenson letter, not a poem (not much stylistic difference)

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.

I’ve really never seen anything quite like it

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

Darth Vader and Gandalf (really), hanging out on my desk at school

5 thoughts on “Behold, the Humble Dash

  1. Anonymous

    Personally, I throw dashes around all over the damn place in my writing–they’re fun and they seem to bother academics. I don’t why some of my former colleagues took offense to them–it probably had to do with insecurities about elongated, horizontal lines in sentences–but I took note of it. Now, I use them a little more sparingly than I did, say, four years ago.

    Good post on them, though, Jeff. They deserve it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anonymous

    I’ve read the book when we were living in Alaska and Monica was a baby. Too long ago to recall but I know I didn’t dislike it. I love Emily and hope to see her home someday. Her letters were not typed, so how close to the next words were the dashes she used? Ems or ens? That might drive you nuts…and btw, what about those dot dot dots? I use them all the time.
    This was wonderful, Jeff. Teach me more, please!
    Auntie May

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Another reason for me to check it out! Very neat, and also great question about Dickenson. She did write everything, and from what I’ve seen, her dashes were LONG. They’re almost her own thing, but I guess we could call them em dashes. I’ll see what else I can find out.

      Ha ha, anyway, I never thought of that. The “…” is called an ellipsis, and you’re right, she used tons of them! Thanks so much for the feedback. I’ll try to make more grammar posts in the future!


  3. Pingback: Behold, the Pernicious Comma Splice – BATCH & NARRATIVE

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s