Monday, March 02, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: The Dash

In her memorable book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss accuses the dash of being “the enemy of grammar” these days due in large part to email and phone texts, the new age epitome of “disorganized thought.” The dash has now taken the place of all other forms of punctuation in these instances and its use is causing confusion as to when use of the dash is truly appropriate.

First off, it is important not to mistake the dash for its smaller alternative, the hyphen. The dash is used to connect or separate sentences and phrases while the hyphen is generally used to connect individual words. The dash is great for stream-of-consciousness writing (i.e. Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen) or, when sparingly used, can create a wonderful emphasis for “dramatic disjunction which can be exploited for humor, for bathos, for shock.” The dash is that little moment of dramatic pause before the rest is revealed and sets itself a part from the comma in that it is much easier to spot on a page and harder to ignore.

For more on the dash and other methods of emphasis, check out the chapter “Cutting a Dash” in Lynne Truss’s always entertaining guide on grammar, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. For more formal usage, The Chicago Manual of Style is perfectly clear on the different distinctions and usages of the dash.


  1. I'd like to hear an editorial comment or tip about pronunciation. I think it's possible that a person in the Portland are would immediately declare that the vowel sound in Rock and the vowel sound that starts Austin, TX are the same vowel sound. But, You would not get anyone to agree with you who lives in Austin. And, it's not the sound in Austin that we're disputing. Oregon folks rhyme "ought" with "yacht". Ms. Palin does the same but both of her pronunciations are totally different. I get heated up, maybe you could get a level headed person to speak on the matter. I teach Spanish speakers how to use English and they want to know.

  2. portland area, sorry