Sometimes I forget how to use commas. I’m not guilty of run-ons or splices. I never fuse. Listing, I even prefer the optional Oxford. Yet show me an introductory element or a blankety-blank clause and I freeze up. I blame the paucity of public school grammar lessons—and then I use a dash.
The dash is my go-to fix, my sentence extender, my comma absolver, my elastic-waistbanded jeans at the Thanksgiving feast of language. Often, others gawk at my habit. I recently sent a draft of a story to a writer pal who took with me the tone used with Fuller in Home Alone , when he’s told to go easy on the Pepsi—except this pal was talking about my dashes. They’re always the long variety— em dashes . (A boyfriend, a wunderkind fantasy writer, was always asking me to clarify: em - or en -dash? Bad sign.)
Most of what I know about grammar and punctuation I learned from foreign language classes. I took thirteen years of Spanish: That’s how I discovered the subjunctive mood and gerundos— gerunds, why I can tell you mantequilla means butter, escritorio means desk, and la falda means the skirt. El guión is dash—yet I don’t remember falling in love con el guión . Where did my obsession come from?
I recently opened an unwieldy white box where I keep my writing effects. Should fame ever find my number, I tell myself, the Harry Ransom Center will want the contents of this caja .
One of the first things I found was a photo of me and my Spanish class in first grade. Then all my sporadically kept diaries. Then a story I wrote in fourth grade that my mother typed for me. But this box, though it contains the DNA of the writer I’ve become, showed no evidence of my first use of the dash, nor of my obsession with dashing.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my preteen self with affection. She was a plucky little dork. She loved reading aloud. She got excited about performing. Now I think of myself as a pretty subdued person, but as a child a very influential babysitter in my life had given me the nickname Drama Queen, and I carried that sobriquet around like an invisible scepter. There’s great power in knowing no one knows who you really are.
My poor baby brother was only two years younger than me, but for the first five years of his life I tortured him. Once, through the bars of his crib, I bit his back. I enlisted his plastic dinosaurs to be weird vehicles of sadism for my Barbies. I also forced him to listen to me read.
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein is one book I remember performing for him. I used voices, rollicking bravado, and a kooky-aunt kind of musicality, like a one-girl vaudeville show. I treated each opening of my mouth as an audition for who knows what.
A quick library check reveals the second poem in Silverstein’s book is a possible candidate for my first dash spotting:
Silverstein’s dash is used for emphasis and pause. “Please” proceeds it, so even if the dash were interruptive, the mood wouldn’t be impolite. This is a dash I love, the breed that makes material the poetic caesura, though, frankly, this dash is restrained by my standards.
In my own work, the dash often serves as the butterfly leaf on the dining room table of a sentence—usually, an extreme, many-claused, gonzo sentence—in the elbow-to-elbow eatery of a busy paragraph. Nicholson Baker is reigning king of this dash, and I am his loyal subject.
I like to think Baker and I share an obsession with dashes—and detail. Dashes invite description. They let you stop and zoom in, give backstory, or inject voice. They can help you mimic speech, too. In that white box with my Spanish snapshot, beneath the pink-laminated cover of Five Days in Oak Forest —my first effort at writing a book—I found the flimsiest, March-of-Dimes freebie greeting cards: a cat à la nineties-first-pet, Socks, dangling a paw over a vase; a teddy bear moping. Letters from my great-aunt Stella.
Five Days in Oak Forest is about nineteenth-century orphans who eat deer meat and tough it out in the woods. In the “About the Author” section at the back, ten-year-old me lists as her hobbies “writing letters to friends, teachers, and celibrites [sic].” In a diary from the same time, an entry ends, “I want mail sooo bad.”
I’m thankful my parents kept me in stamps and stationery, and I’m even more thankful they never read what I wrote to my language arts teachers and swim team chums and . . . to the cast of Friends . (Two decades later, I still remember how many parentheticals those letters contained. That upended pair of overgrown commas was a secret passageway of prose—who knew what I could cram inside? How many sets of parenthesis are too many? I used to ponder. I treated them like Matryoshka dolls.)
I received mail most days: a catalog; an autographed photo of an Illinois politician; or a note, like this one, from my great-aunt.
I see now that although a period ended my aunt’s salutation and her first sentence, and abbreviated “Saturday” to “Sat.”, her letter mostly unspools in dashes, loose stitches basting the hem of her thoughts, punctuational ums or rights that replicate conversation in prose. Evidence of exposure to dash sprees from a young age, I realized, and put a lid on the box.
The rest of the story of my dash addiction is an easier one. I remember how I became fully committed to them. When I was in high school, I read Vox by Nicholson Baker. Novelistic experiments fascinated me—I hunted for Perec’s e -less A Void at a local Border’s. I was sixteen and slavering to see sex in text. My friends and I passed Vox around our circle, and soon The Fermata followed.
Baker’s Seussian sexcapades turned me on, but his prose taught me more than what one could do with an avocado and a toothbrush: he made me want to write fiction. His novels mute the plod of time (the Italian fermare , “to stop,” gives us “fermata,” that eerie, unspecified musical pause) and blare a narrative consciousness that dashes perform. “My own skill at jamming time may actually be dependent on some fluid mixture of emotions, among them curiosity, sexual desire, and love, all suspended in a solvent medium of loneliness,” Baker writes in The Fermata. To jam time—that was why I wanted to write.
A decade later, I read Baker’s essay “The History of Punctuation.” There, after admitting to his hyphen habit, he celebrates “the great dash-hybrids” (“dashtards” he dubs them):
All three of them—the commash ,—, the semi-colash ;—, and the colash :— (so I name them, because naming makes analysis possible)—are of profound importance to Victorian prose, and all three are now (except for certain revivalist zoo specimens to be mentioned later) extinct.
By this point, my own tendency to dash was as solidified as my birthstone. I’d completed one MFA program, where, like one of Silverstein’s acrobats, I set myself the task of writing a story in a single, thousand-word sentence —33 dashes. I was by now well into a second MFA program, where the workshops took place less than a mile from the homestead of the dashiest of all dashers, Emily Dickinson. I read her Master Letters (“A love so big it scares her, rushing among her small heart—pushing aside the blood—and leaving her faint and white in the gust’s arm—”) and those Amherst caesuras, coupled with Baker’s relics, transformed me into a dash activist.
“Digression,” Baker writes in his first novel, The Mezzanine , in which only eighteen pages of the book’s 133 go undashed, “—a movement away from the gradus , or upward escalation , of the argument—is sometimes the only way to be thorough.” And though he’s not explicitly discussing the dash, perhaps he’s identifying its greatest attribute. The dash invites disorder. It asks the reader to double-back, pause, hold up.
Last fall, I rewrote my novel. I had a teaching contract, an office, a big-screened Mac, committee work. I hated this—I hated everything that wasn’t my writing. I canceled classes and replaced our face-to-face meetings with online chores. When I was in the classroom, I instituted drafting days where I asked students to bring their laptops. That way all of us—including teacher—could work.
I taught comp. In the course’s penultimate unit, right before I distributed university-issued Scantrons and left the room for students to assess attributes like my preparedness and knowledgeability, I wheeled out my lone legitimate lesson. It was not on the hyphen, I explained, sending students to their requisite grammar book: “ A long dash has two functions,” the primer says doltishly. “It can interrupt—or create emphasis.”
We practiced writing sentences with long dashes, and my students would chalk them on the blackboard—sometimes laughing at their words, at the punchline tone the cliffhanger dash can take. I felt good after that lesson, like I’d cosmically bettered the freshmen, as though the ability to dash were as crucial as the foresight to carry a condom.
The dash left a mark. Students used them in reflection letters and final essays. In the draft of my novel I completed over the first three months of that semester, there are 653 long dashes, about 2.29 long dashes per page. They play all types of roles—extender, interrupter, lister—but what they have in common is an inherent desire to do more, to say a little extra, to create a kind of double time, like people talking on top of one another. I wanted to be more than someone lecturing on a strong thesis statement—to do more than watch TV with my little brother, to receive more than birthday cards in the mail, to see sex as more than a list of tips in Cosmo . To say something on the page, something more than I ever could in words. That’s what I didn’t share with my word-count-conscious students: how the dash lets you revel in all the messy muchness of yourself—without fear.