Sunday, November 25, 2012

When Can You Use Dashes?

At Grammar Girl, Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, reflects on dashes and offers this advice:

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.” Overusing dashes can have a similar effect—prose that is trying too hard to be dramatic when it has no business being so. Dashes can render sentences breathlessly hyperactive, silly—or just downright messy. Ironically, Fitzgerald’s editor Max Perkins deleted many a dash from The Great Gatsby.

So, in the spirit of National Novel Writing Month, here’s my advice: Use dashes in the zestful romp of writing a first draft, but snip them out in revision. Ask yourself if there’s another punctuation mark that could work in its place and consider the different effect. Dashes, after all, are most effective as the flashy accoutrements to an otherwise refined outfit, not as the main feature of the outfit itself. 

I phrase my advice this way. Sometimes, your frequent need to use dashes really means you need to rewrite your sentences more frequently. But if you are wed to a certain sentence, try using less intrusive punctuation first.  Before using a dash, try using a comma. If the comma fails, sometimes you can use parentheticals. If both the comma and the parentheticals fail, feel free to use a dash.


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