cricketmuse

a writer's journey as a reader

Dash It All


I have come upon the realization I lean towards dashes instead of semi-colons–really, I do. My students upon the first introduction to Emily Dickinson notice her use of those extra big hyphens. Hey–if it’s good enough for Em–dash it all, it can’t be all wrong.

On reflection, perhaps I overindulge in my penchant for dashes–or maybe not? In my desire to correctly use them, I turned to the Internet and found my favorite grammar guru–Ben Yagoda. A writer for The New York Times, professor, teacher, and I would say humorist, he provided everything I needed to know about the dash–and then some. Check out his fabulous writing guide How Not to Write Bad (really–that’s the title).

cartoon by Peter Arkle

An excerpt from his column points out how effective the dash can be:

To get a sense of some of the things a dash can do, take a look at these pairs of quotes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”:

Thirty: the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.

Thirty—the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.

Henry James, referring to Henry David Thoreau:

He was worse than a provincial, he was parochial.

He was worse than a provincial—he was parochial.

Mark Twain in “Autobiography”:

…life does not consist mainly (or even largely) of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.

…life does not consist mainly—or even largely—of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.

Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar”:

Each person is born to one possession which outvalues all his others: his last breath.

Each person is born to one possession which outvalues all his others—his last breath.

In all cases, both versions make sense and are grammatically correct. But the ones with the dash (the ones the authors actually wrote) seem to live and breathe, while the others just lie there on the page. Like hitting the right combination of buttons in a computer game, typing two hyphens on the keyboard — and thereby making a dash — can give your prose a burst of energy, as if by magic. 

Emily, Twain, F. Scott, and Henry J.–I’m in good company.

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8 thoughts on “Dash It All

  1. I like dashes too. They are more active, aren’t they. I feel that they signal to the reader that there’s some important rider or qualification coming next – it creates a pause in real time just as a pause in a musical score might – so you can expand the thought. I see Ben Yagoda says this too. But thank you for posting this post and his article because I now find that what I thought were dashes on my computer turn out to be hyphens, and now I know how to make a proper dash. This also explains why sometimes my computer makes a dash while leaving me not knowing how it happened.

  2. I tend to lean on the dash too but I find they don’t interupt the flow as much as a colon, semi-colon or brackets – dashers unite!

  3. Luanne on said:

    This post really catches my attention because I’ve recently been thinking I need take my heavy reliance on end ellipses and change over some of them dashes ;).

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