Thursday, 5 March 2015

Add flair to your dash!

Are too many dashes used in writing these days? I’d love to know what you think. For my part, I love dashes and I believe that their proper use can pep up a sentence and helps to emphasise parts of it that might otherwise be overlooked.

But – just as an aside – don’t you like the word ‘dash’? It has a certain freedom and quick spirit about it and runs nicely into the word ‘dashing’ which is equally cavalier, playful and charming. That’s one of the marvellous things about the English language generally, that if you take a word out and hold it up against the light it will often sparkle with meaning and might well be added to the growing box of your favourites.

Enough of such asides; my brief purpose is to look at the use of the dash – so onwards.

You might notice that modern novels are full of dashes. It has been suggested (mostly I think by cynics and pedants) that, because many modern novelists are illiterate, they use the dash to save themselves the trouble of deciding whether they should use commas, semi-colons or brackets to isolate their subordinate clauses. In fact, the dash is a very useful and perfectly legitimate punctuation mark if used sparingly – it can break up a sentence to allow you to emphasise your point without appearing too repetitious.

You can use dashes in a similar way to brackets:
e.g. After the performance – the last of the season – the ballerina retired to the country.

I think this example clearly illustrates where a dash is in fact preferable to a bracket. As a rule, if I am ever tempted to use a bracket I first ask myself, do I need this extra phrase, this additional information? When I do need it because it is useful information, adding colour to the sentence, I normally find that it reads better and is more noticeable used between dashes than cubby-holed in brackets. Many readers see bracketed material as of secondary importance, or information that might otherwise be in a footnote. And they may be right.

When used in the way exampled above, two dashes – one before and one after the extra phrase – are needed, as with brackets. When the phrase comes at the end of the sentence you only need to have the one dash – as in this ending.

Here’s another way of using a dash:
e.g. She gave a magnificent performance – no one could equal her.

In this example a colon might have been used instead of a dash but the effect would have been rather stilted and formal.

So dashes are worthy. But do be especially careful not to overuse them. Paragraphs littered with dashes look clumsy, can be hard to read and actually do tend to betray a lack of knowledge on the writer’s part of appropriate punctuation. In particular, be careful not to use more than one additional phrase, marked by a dash, in one sentence. This will seriously promote confusion because a reader will never know which parts of the sentence are supposed to relate.

e.g. He turned away – the interview was over – and walked towards the window – the light had now faded – sensing that he had failed in his efforts – he would have to try something else.

This said, the dash is sometimes legitimately used to link a series of connected phrases:
e.g. The autumn trees were a splendid sight – splashes of red – sudden glints of gold and silver – a carpet of russet brown beneath the trunks.

While this is not incorrect, it is unusual. In my thinking, it is preferable to use one initial dash and then link the other phrases together with commas.

As in all things, as writers we need to think of achieving the right balance and this is a visual as well as syntactical and also rhythmical quality. Over and under-use of punctuation trips up and spoils the balance. So enjoy your dashes but don’t spray them on your prose like confetti.

That’s it – must dash!!