To present not a word, but an idea, perhaps better called a device, word related of course, used by writers across the globe, but particularly in the US where we tend toward grammatical laziness and enjoy hatcheting the King’s English, which maybe at this juncture should be called the Queen’s English, to denote a pause or, more often, a derailment in one’s train of thought.
Today, I present The Dash, otherwise known as —.
Why the dash? Several reasons come to mind, or rather flit unbidden and out of control across the landscape of my ever metamorphosing, twisted-neuron and distantly synapsed brain. First, though, a definition, garnered, after an unreasonable amount of research, from the website of the Capital Community College Foundation, not because CCCF offers the best description, but because its tone, both informative and quirky (quirky being my hands down favorite word), beats the absolute hell out of that of Rutgers University and GrammarBook.com, both of which are, though equally informative, very, very, sub-Sonoran desert very, dry. That CCCF’s site also has a typo in the very first line, the presence of which makes me ridiculously happy in an “irony is essential to life” sort of way, is an additional bonus. So reporteth they (as per Lewis Thomas):
The dash is a handy device, informal and esentially playful, telling you that you’re about to take off on a different tack but still in some way connected with the present course — only you have to remember that the dash is there, and either put a second dash at the end of the notion to let the reader know that he’s back on course, or else end the sentence, as here, with a period (http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/marks/dash.htm).
I decided to expound on the dash following three episodes involving not so distinctly related nouns: an hour of hot Vinyasa yoga, a large coffee swallowed in haste, and an open word document titled “Blog,” glaring at me with the unhelpful subheading “SWP Goodness Week Four.”
I don’t know about you kids, but I am sick to death of listening to myself extol the admittedly plentiful virtues of the Summer Writing Program. This is not the fault of Naropa University, nor of the program, nor, especially, of my week four instructor, Kenneth Goldsmith. No, the culprit is me. Or, more specifically, my habit of moving at a snail’s pace, particularly when blog writing. SWP has been over for almost two months to the day. Temperatures are down, at least in Boulder, tree limbs are easing their grip on chlorophyll-deprived leaves, and yet another presidential election lurks just weeks away. I’ve finished retooling my book, planned and held another NCWN regional meeting, and embarked on a series of yoga/pilates/aerial exercise classes at a new studio. Weather willing, I’m going to see Barack Obama speak (eloquently and with much passion) tomorrow noight, my daughter is closing in on her thesis, after which she will return home after a year in England, and my husband retires in two days. Which is to say, there’s so much going on RIGHT THIS MINUTE (at least in my caffeine-rinsed cerebellum) that I cringe at the thought of trying to remember exactly what I thought/felt/learned eight weeks ago while running between the Sycamore and PAC buildings on Naropa’s sweet campus. Not because I don’t want to share those many experiences (that was the week I got tattooed after all!), but because I feel my attention waning, and therefore cannot help but be concerned about you, my one or two faithful readers.
Which brings me to the dash. You’ll notice I haven’t used any dashes in this post, despite the fact that I am inordinately fond of them. Scattered as we all seem to be nowadays, the dash has taken over as a preferred mode of punctuation. In the middle of explaining the dynamics of 20th Century Russian poetry when a cow crosses your vision, calling to mind afternoons spent on Grandma’s farm and derailing the brilliant words of Osip Mandelstam? Toss in a dash! Expounding on the community-building capabilities of paper and pen (as opposed, of course, to that of the computer) when you remember you forgot to mention the last letter your Uncle Floyd wrote before being hanged by a troop of ill-groomed midgets outraged at skyrocketing paper prices? A dash saves the day.
And yet… And yet, the dash has, as do we all, a dark side. An insidious, hesitant, compulsive side that induces writers, myself most definitely included, to toss all rules of common sense and, dare I say it, decent grammar aside. Turning us into interruption prone, listener-negligent drones in pursuit of various brightly colored flights of fancy, skirting serious issues, losing track of vitally important yet now forgotten ideas, opinions, and arguments. Adopting a “playful,” even “whimsical” attitude toward words and thus risking our status as “serious” (ie, desperate for the attention of discerning audiences) writers. Here, for instance is the sage advice of GrammarBook.com’s Jane Straus:
While there are many possible uses of the em dash, by not providing additional rules, I am hoping to curb your temptation to employ this convenient but overused punctuation mark (http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/dashes.asp).
But wait. I should bracket that entire last paragraph, quote included, with a pair of what CCCF calls “emendations” (noun; an alteration designed to correct or improve a text), as it was not at all my intention to disparage the poor Dash, the em Dash if you will, but rather to explore my own wavering attentiveness, on and off the paper, and thereby try to decide for myself how I can possibly go back, or if indeed it is necessary to go back, and finish what I started (SWP Goodness) when all I want to do is howl about present day circumstances. Did such exercise work? Why yes, yes it did. Because I realize that I do indeed, for my own peace of mind (or piece of mind, both seem adequate here), need to complete my previous line of thinking.
Therefore, I interrupt my rambling, without hesitation, or further unmindful stalling, to offer this, the last installment in 2012 SWP Goodness:
But wait—this post is already too long.