→ Justina Ashman
The dash is a multifarious mark, capable of great good and, some argue, great evil. We see dashes all over modern writing – from emails, to literature, to online op-eds on their overuse. Writers and editors alike seem divided by this symbol – arguing over when to use it, how to use it and if anyone should use it at all. What is it about this horizontal that is so controversial?
A dash of history
Etymologically, the dash has its roots in the verb ‘to dash’, meaning to strike violently, derived from the Middle English ‘dasshen’, meaning to knock, hurl or break. The very roots of the word reinforce the nature of this punctuation mark, which interrupts and interjects as suddenly and strikingly as one might ‘dasshen’ a medieval spear.
The dash has evolved over the centuries. Dashes have been used for everything from denoting dialogue (as in James Joyce’s Ulysses), to censoring letters and words (to the point of ‘dash’ becoming a near profanity itself), to sitting merrily alongside commas, colons, semicolons and periods to create the ‘commash’ and its hybrid kin (quirky dashes that grew in popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before fizzling out in the nineteenth century and falling into disuse by the twentieth).
The advent of the typewriter, and the need to fit letters and typographical marks on a single keyboard, introduced new dash variants. Because there were not enough keys to include every different length of dash, the dashlike-but-not-quite ‘hyphen-minus’ was introduced. Keith Houston, in his book Shady Characters, writes that typograpny ‘suffered an ignominious blow: from a suite of dashes for every occasion, writers were reduced to using and reusing this single character wherever any faintly dashlike symbol might ordinarily have appeared’. These restrictions forced the use of such em-dash imposters as the spaced hyphen and the unspaced double hyphen. Today most word processors automatically insert the appropriate dash to replace such typographic trespasses.
Dash discourse—debates, discussion and disputes
Perhaps the em alternatives that cropped up during the hyphen-minus kerfuffle contributed to the ongoing argument that runs rampant in editorial circles today: the unspaced em versus the spaced en. But the dash discourse goes beyond the ‘em or en’ debate – some feel very strongly about modern society’s burgeoning tendency towards over-dashing.
Philip Corbett, in his piece for the New York Times, ‘Dashes Everywhere’ writes that the dash ‘can seem like a tic; worse yet, it can indicate a profusion of overstuffed and loosely constructed sentences bulging with parenthetical additions and asides.’ Noreen Malone agrees in an article for Slate, writing:
'The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don’t you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won’t be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that’s not yet complete?'
According to Lynne Truss in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, some see dashes as ‘the enemy of grammar’ because of their overuse in online communication and tendency to act as a catch-all punctuation mark. But Truss argues that there’s still a place for attention-seeking punctuation like the dash: ‘I can’t help thinking, in its defence, that our system of punctuation is limited enough already without us dismissing half of it as rubbish’. There’s a danger in completely disregarding the benefits of a wide variety of punctuation. Malone demonstrates a disruptive – and yes, annoying – overabundance of dashes. But that very disjointedness can be used to great deliberate effect – in fact, Malone does use it this way.
Malone mentions a friend who ‘thinks of the parenthesis as a whisper, and the dash as a way of calling attention to a phrase.’ This difference – the difference between a whisper and a shout – is important. Simply replacing dashes with other punctuation changes the tone and even meaning of a phrase or sentence. The possibilities that dashes present shouldn’t be quashed or tamed – but embraced, explored and expanded.
Part Two to come on Thursday