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? —

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