To Beat a Grammarian: Dashes
With this punctuation mark, I must make a confession: it tends to be one of my favorite ones, and…I overuse it a bit. For this reason, when editing, I examine my dashes carefully. But they are so wonderful. So let’s get started.
This should be clear to anyone who has ever read or used a dash before. It creates focus and attention in written form that usually need to be spoken out loud to convey. For example:
I’ve loved you—and only you—since we were children.
Now what’s important is to compare it to when commas were used. Take a look:
I loved you, and only you, since we were children.
As you can see, there is a markedly different feel to the sentences. This is an extremely useful tool for writers to draw attention to specific words or ideas and is most often present in dialogue. As that is the case, let’s look at the next use of dashes.
2) Interruption or switching to a different subject matter
Whenever a subject abruptly changes, writers toss in a dash to show the suddenness of the event. Most notably, it is used in speech, but should you be writing a first person narrative, this may come up in their ramblings as well. Here we are:
“Joan, you have to listen to me! I didn’t want—”
“I don’t care what you wanted! You didn’t think about me at all!” (Interruption)
“I really just—I think we need a break from each other…to see where things are going.” (Subject Change)
You might be confused. In both examples above, the dash interjected into some kind of growing thought that was then cut short. True. And in both cases, the dashed off section found itself with more emphasis, so, yes, this kind of works both ways, as emphasis and interruption. But you can see the hidden power in it, which is also why it shouldn’t be used too often (like I’ve been known to do). When done too often, it weakens what follows, and as a writer, you never want to pull your punches or wear yourself out.
Also, I’d like to note that in the second example, we see the dash and the ellipses. I did this on purpose for you to see how they essentially act as opposites. While the dash highlights, the ellipses downplays, marking something off as if a side note. But more on that later.
As with all punctuation marks, the dash can be an ad hoc tool for clarification. We throw it in to remove a part of one sentence that is clunky or jumbled. Take a look below.
I had a lot of work, cleaning my room, vacuuming, and doing the dishes, all before my wife got home.
The clutter of gerunds and commas following the word ‘work’ can be a bit much and might throw off the flow of the author’s writing. For this reason, authors should take note. We don’t like it when our writing becomes to difficult to follow. Hence, we employ the dash. See:
I had a lot of work—cleaning my room, vacuuming, and doing the dishes—all before my wife got home.
Simple, clear, and effective.
*To note: a dash is two hyphens put together in most word processers. Having one is a big no-no, so be careful! On top of this, it is usually used to begin and end a set of words so don’t forget the last dash, like I’ve been prone to do.