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? —


Manners Online

Colm O’Regan is slightly irritated by the rash of chumminess which has infected online communications, especially the false intimacy characteristic of websites such as Facebook with its intrusive, ‘How are you feeling, Colm?’ (see I must confess that, by and large, it doesn’t bother me. Time was when I daresay we all had but a single name and were just Thomasina, Ricarda or Harriet to fellow members of our tribe and grunted and pointed our way through life, without adverting to any of the finer feelings. That, to me, sums up the process of shopping online; so those cheery emails which inform me that ‘Catherine! Your payment was successful!’ leave me quite happy; it’s those that say ‘Ooops! there was a problem with your card!’ that annoy.

There is, however, a whole area of life online where I think manners matter very much indeed: blogs and social media. We reveal a great deal about ourselves by the way in which we interact online. Yes, of course, we all have ‘off’ days or sometimes say things we regret or with a clumsiness we subsequently deplore and are chastened to think that those remarks are there for ever and ever. It is a challenge we have to work at: how to be ourselves, but in a genuinely social way.

Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I defy you to find a single line where Jane Austen ever approves of arrogance or the wit that achieves its effect by wounding others. Today is also the feast of St Thomas Aquinas. It is said of him that, although he was often abstracted and did  not welcome interruptions, he was a true intellectual aristocrat and always answered others with politeness. St Benedict often referred to the need for courtesy in the monastery, seeing it as the outward manifestation of the humility and reverence at the heart. Centuries after Benedict and Aquinas, Chesterton defined courtesy as ‘the wedding of humility with dignity’ and declared that ‘the grace of God is in courtesy’.

I think there is something there for us all to think about, don’t you?