The dash is like the Wild West of punctuation. It has no rules. As a writer, I overuse it. I commit other grammatical crimes, too, like my regular use of the sentence fragment, but there’s nothing like a dash to liven up a paragraph. Author and grammar watchdog Lynn Truss of NY Times Bestseller “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” states, “The main reason people use [the em dash], however, is that they know you can’t use it wrongly–which for a punctuation mark, is an uncommon virtue.” (quote)
Isn’t it cool to have a punctuation mark with no rules? It’s like having a boss that says, “Oh, I don’t care, do whatever you want.” I think I want to drink coffee and relax. Then get paid.
I feel strongly about grammar, I’ve written about the Oxford comma before, and God help you I’ll judge if you use the wrong homophone. My love for grammar never departs even though I cave to the sentence fragment in favor of rhythm and flow. All the great masters study classically before they deconstruct. I’m no master, but I’ve used the English language enough to indulge myself in a deviation now and again. I imagine what it would be like to be a great master using dashes and fragments at will, then I come down to earth when The Editor gets involved.
I overuse the dash–I write satire. I can never use too many dashes, but if I do, I’ll just make fun of myself, and as all good comedians know, when you make fun of yourself, the joke’s off the table. My conscience rests peacefully at night, grammatical controversy notwithstanding.
This year I want to do a lot more writing with my students–it’s changed my life for the better, and I don’t want them to grow up and get chastised by their editors for things they could have prevented. It’s important to learn the conventions of the English language so you don’t look stupid in general and editors don’t get cranky when they have to backspace out your extra spaces. I’ll teach my students to use the right homophone, too, as well as about commas, dashes, and dependent clauses.
With so much pressure out there in the land of writing, it’s nice to have one fall-back piece of punctuation–and there aren’t many, that you can use to have a good time and not worry about breaking any rules–although you’re certain to have plenty of critics. My math friend chimed in with, “In cooking, a dash is something used sparingly. So should it be with writing.” How can I take that critique from a math guy? You cannot force me into submission! Even if you are perfectly correct. And most likely tons smarter than me–I don’t care.
Thanks, em-dash. I hope the manuals and rules don’t catch up with you. I like the flexibility. You stay just the way you are.
I started using dashes in the third grade after reading, “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” because, to me as a young reader, C.S. Lewis used dashes with reckless abandon in that book. I read the whole Narnia series several times and felt then that his writing was without reproach. I often use dashes in lieu of parentheses or commas to this day. My fifth grade teacher is the only person who ever objected to my use of this liberating punctuation mark.
What did Brother Norris say about the dash? That’s what we really need to know…