1. Venus//
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    Venus// Member

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    When and why to use a dash -

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Venus//, Dec 19, 2012.

    One thing I have never understood is why dashes are used in writing. I understand that a dash can be used to signify an abrupt end in speech where a character may be interrupted. But what about the other times?
    Here is an example from The Wild Palms by W. Faulkner:

    He seemed to them: the empty years in which his youth had vanished-the years for wild oats and for daring, for the passionate tragic ephemeral loves of adolescence, the girl- and boy-white, the wild importunate fumbling flesh . . .

    The quote goes on and on. I can type it all if you need it.
    But why does he use the dashes in this sentence? Why the dash after "vanish" and the next dash after "girl?" Also, why is it better in some cases to use a dash rather than start a new sentence?

    Thanks.
     
  2. Jon Deavers
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    Jon Deavers Member

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    Well, Faulkner is a bit of a different beast altogether. He was very experimental with his prose and the rhythm that it should be read with. I would hazard a guess here that the intentions of those dashes are to slow you down like the line breaks of poetry.
     
  3. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    In the first instance, I'm pretty sure you could replace the dash with a comma or a colon (the dash after "vanish" that is). It's simply a subordinate clause giving you more detail, but in the form of a list, which is why I say a colon would be possible too. I could be wrong though.

    In the second instance, it's because it is actually "girl-white and boy-white". While I have no idea what "girl-white and boy-white" could possible mean, he used a dash there because "girl-white" is in fact one word, but he wanted to omit the repetition since "boy-white" followed immediately afterward.

    Others can correct me if I'm wrong. This is just what I think.
     
  4. Venus//
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    Venus// Member

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    In one article I read, the dash can be used for emphasis. I do like the idea of using it to slow a reader down or use it for rhythm too though.
    Another article called it a "super comma" that should not be used where a regular comma would suffice. That confused me a little because in the other article I read the examples they used to show the use of a dash would have been just fine with commas.
    This article:
    http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/semi-colons-colons-and-dashes/
     
  5. F.E.
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    There might be a mixture of em dashes and hyphens in your example. I'm assuming the first "dash" is actually an em dash, and that the next two are actually hyphens. It also might be possible that the em dash (the first "dash") was probably used because a colon was already used in the sentence -- compare to "He missed the empty years in which his youth had vanished: the years for wild oats and for daring, for the passionate tragic ephemeral loves of adolescence, ..."

    As to your last question, it's mostly a style issue. Em dashes can be used to connect clauses and phrases together (like with the semicolon and colon), and it can be used to insert clauses and phrases in the middle of another clause, and it can be used to apply "focus" onto a clause or phrase that is between a pair of em dashes, and it can be used to show an abruptness between two clauses/phrases, and it can be used to show an interruption in dialogue, and it can be used to insert narrative in the middle of two pieces of dialogue, ...

    The best way to see how em dashes are now being used in fiction is to look at the prose in the novels and short stories of your favorite authors. :)
     
  6. Venus//
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    Venus// Member

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    Thank you. That was helpful.
    Do you know why one might use an em dash instead of a semicolon or colon? (Besides their already being a colon or semicolon in the sentence I mean.)
     
  7. Venus//
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    Venus// Member

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    F.E. when you say "it can be used to show an abruptness between two clauses/phrases" do you mean that a writer may use a dash when they want two clauses or phrases to be read together in a more unified way? Whereas a period may slow the reader down too much. Does that question make sense?
     
  8. F.E.
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    F.E. Member

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    Yes, because in many of those situations where em dashes (or pairs of em dashes) can be used, semicolons or colons cannot be used--due to grammar/syntax. :)

    Those usages that I've underlined probably can't be done with semicolons or colons. E.g. He saw a tiger--a big Siberian tiger with hunger in his eyes--come running at him.
     
  9. F.E.
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    F.E. Member

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    An em dash can be used for that purpose as you mentioned--to help unify two pieces of text together, when a period might be too separating type of punctuation (in the eyes of the author).

    But when I was talking about an abruptness, I was meaning that the context took an unexpected turn, e.g. The cute little bunny rabbit came closer, its pink nose twitching with cuteness, its fluffy ears full of fluffiness, its cute little buck teeth having a whiteness from nibbling on carrots, its pink eyes--blood-shot red eyes! It wasn't a bunny rabbit, but a were-rabbit! Oh, noes! Run! Run!

    Though, the abruptness doesn't have to be quite, er, that abrupt in change of direction. (The Chicago Manual of Style has a relatively decent discussion and examples related to the usage of em dashes.)
     
  10. Venus//
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    Venus// Member

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    Thanks again! That cleared it up for me quite a bit. I will probably still do a little more reading on the subject too.
     
  11. BawaK
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    BawaK New Member

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    I sometimes use it to describe something in the sentence without breaking the flow of the sentence.
    e.g.:

    "But as his luck would have it, his car - a new-ish Polo - had a nervous breakdown on a side-road..."

    I hope that helps. The replies before this are also very helpful.
     
  12. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    don't try to second guess faulkner... and for pete's sake, don't emulate him in re that muddled mix of colon/em dashes!... no editor today would let that pass from a new and unknown writer...

    here's where you can find answers to your punctuation questions, that you should keep in your favorites menu:

    http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/566/01/
     

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