When times are tough, we need to dash


TIME OUT:Punctuation mark is a symbol of optimism

WHAT A lovely punctuation mark the dash is. How therapeutic it is to focus on it to the exclusion of all other life pressures. When times are tough, we need to dash. Dashing is therapeutic because the dash is a sign of hope when it seems that progress has reached a full stop. It is truly a delightful punctuation mark. It is light, entertaining and optimistic – a symbol of good things ahead.

Taking time out to consider the dash is therapeutic. It is an indulgence that is available and free. For the dash is a positive signal. It is going somewhere – a mark on the move – not something that arrests development of the sentence, but something that elaborates and expands, deviates and delights, in one stroke.

The dash carries psychological meaning. Punctuation has its rules, so does life, but dashing defies them and it does so in a swift, sure, stylish manner that is liberating to the mind and the words that flow from it.

The dash is best delivered with a pen – preferably a quill – so that it is executed with a dramatic flourish rather than confined by the precision of the printed word. Print is fine for hyphens, for their ordered, 21st century measured, horizontal exactitude, but the dash is special; it should never be circumscribed. Which is why the lazy dash is an oxymoron – there is nothing lazy about it – it energises the writer, allows the free flow of ideas, determines that the next passage is read and flies in the face of semantic sensibilities.

The dash is an energetic, enthusiastic, enlivening seductive gigolo that consorts with any sentence, challenges conjunctions, sneers at colons, and resists the curtailment of full stops. It is far superior to the comma, which, with all due respect, slows us down, impedes our progress toward the end of the sentence and has so many rules about when and where it can be used, or must be omitted, that for such a tiny mark it is a hugely tedious modulation.

Perhaps this is why writers and dramatists, such as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and a host of others, ignored it or recruited it to their will; disdaining grammatical tyranny in favour of creativity that no comma could accommodate, nor full stop end.

Granted the comma can be a functional, regulating mark for pitch, tone and rhythm; but it is an inelegant, castrated, tadpole type of thing between clauses – a semantic squiggle that either sprinkles itself too liberally across a paragraph, or is conspicuous by its absence, as the voice drones on and on, unedited and unrestrained, until we reach incomprehensibility and yearn for the finality of the full stop.

Editors may argue forever about the comma, friends may part because of it and meaning may be utterly altered by its absence – but when it comes to the dash, the flippant, debonair dash, little surpasses it as poets such as Emily Dickinson’s work can attest.

Take, for example, the full stop. It is, of course, the most reliable aid to clarity. There, I’ve said it. You’ve read it. The sentence is finished. That’s it, written, read, understood. That is what makes the full stop definitively depressing.

Unlike the dash, the full stop makes no dangerous punctuation liaisons. It stands alone. It holds no promises for the future. It implies no continuation of the story. It relies on the next sentence for more information. It is curt. It is abrupt. It brooks no argument. It ends our relationship with the sentence in an authoritative way. Compared to the dash, it is dull.

But wait! Is there some competition for the dash from the exclamation mark? At first glance it might appear to be so, but on inspection there is none. For the exclamation mark is full of self-admiration and conceit. It is loud, overstated and crude, saying: “Look at me, me!” It lacks the charm and sophistication of the dash which entices by its presence rather than pretension.

Had I more words I would argue its case more cogently, but an editor awaits copy and so I’ve got to dash!

MindtimeDrivetime with Mary Wilson