Dots and dashes

For reasons beyond my comprehension at any rate, punctuation is not one of the many useless things our kids are drilled in at school. Ergo the ridiculous situation of having to explain punctuation to an undergraduate, or, worse still, a postgraduate class. And among punctuation marks, the dashes are virtually unheard of. 

So while my students often look perturbed when I pontificate on commas and colons, when I mention the em-dash, or its lesser known cousin, the en-dash, (with the admonition that they are not hyphens) I’m setting myself up for manslaughter. Woman-slaughter. Person-slaughter. Heck, slaughter — period.  (A young woman once wanted to know why I’d made repeated personal references to my monthlies in her writing. The references — “Period required”. Seriously.)

So anyway, here’s  a poetic exposition of em-dashes by Emily Dickinson.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

(Acknowledgement: Thanks for reminding me of this poem, Mr. Singh.)

I think Dickinson takes a fair bit of poetic license with the em-dash there! Using the poem to teach em-dashes would probably result in  confusion worse confounded.

Quite like Lewis Thomas’ delightful essay on punctuation: Notes on Punctuation.  

Ze best. The catch is, to get the humour in the piece, your punctuation has to be spot on. It’s for those who know, not for those who want to know. To use it to teach punctuation would be a classic case of ‘let them have cake’. 



  1. Quirky Indian said

    I have a propensity for using em-dashes – as would be evident from a casual perusal of my posts – though I am somewhat cavalier in my usage of the ‘correct lengths’ of the two kinds of dashes.

    Somehow, I don’t think I would have scored very well in any test given by you. ; – )


    Quirky Indian

  2. QI:

    One doesn’t give marks for punctuation, but for content, ideas and felicity of expression. And you would definitely score well on all three counts.

  3. davematt said

    Hilarious SS, takes me back to Wren & Martin 🙂

  4. @ davematt:

    Ah, the two grammar birds. Sigh. I hope I don’t sound as prescriptivist as they do!

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