Cutting a Dash

If you have persevered this far, you are probably someone who notices punctuation and silently corrects or re-writes passages that are less than perfect (including, in my case, many of my own). Recently I have been struggling with an author who uses the dash to express everything from incomplete thought to a pause in the narrative, cheerfully employing dashes when a comma or parentheses would be better (and incidentally, would make the page look better, too). When Jane Austen uses the dash, she does so to great comic effect. Not so my author, whom I suspect of being lazy. His prose is, if you’ll forgive the pun, quite clearly dashed off.

In such circumstances the attention strays. I began to think how the dash is named in other European languages. In German it is Gedankenstrich, thought-line, which dignifies it into something it often isn’t. I like better Jan Tschichold’s suggestion that it should be called a Denkpause, a thought-pause. Yes, the author is pausing to think; but, dear reader, we don’t have to pause with him while his mind slowly revolves. Let us resolve, as far as in us lies, to do away with the dash and settle for plain and simple prose. Eh? β€”


14 thoughts on “Cutting a Dash”

  1. I am so guilty of this. I realise I use dashes a lot, especially when a colon would be better (though in my defence I am a great believer in the preservation of the semi-colon, which some say is under threat). I shall now try to give up dashes for Lent!

    Thank you for the reminder to consider how the page looks (oh, I nearly put a dash there) and for the German words.

    Love and blessings.

  2. While sympathising with the general tenor of the post, I’d venture to suggest that the dash has its place too when used in moderation. Parentheses and especially commas can be overused and, in the process, work against the kind of plainness and simplicity of prose which, I agree, is devoutly to be wished. Phrases about babies and bathwater come to mind.

  3. Although a frequent user of the dash myself, my source of distraction is the use of an exclamation mark, as though the reader is being directed to agree with the point being made! However, this tends to be counter productive, since I now start any new post by a certain blogger with an ” ! count”; the current record is twelve.

  4. My favourite punctuation mark is the exclamation mark! Which I liberally salt and pepper my sentences, to add that certain seasoning to whatever I am writing!However,since using twitter, I have discovered the smiley face: The colon followed by a closing parenthesis.The frowning face is also a delight which is a closing parenthesis followed by the colon. As a shorthand device these are excellent πŸ™‚ Have these punctuation marks been given a name I wonder?

  5. Another slightly shame-faced dasher here, and that despite being a stickler for grammar most of the time. A dasher and a hypocrite, then: I have my work cut out for me this Lent!

    Nonetheless, I do think there is a place for the dash, especially in informal writing such as emails and even – dare I say it – blogs. There must be a middle way between Emily Dickinson’s dash-ridden, squint-inducing style and the abolition of the poor old dash – don’t you think?

  6. Thank you for your comments. How many of you have dressed yourselves in metaphorical sackcloth and ashes, to the great delight of us all. You are truly good sports; so please take a bow. Of course there is a place for the dash. As an erstwhile book designer, I could argue a case for every punctuation mark β€” though not, alas, for the use made of them by some authors. πŸ™‚

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