A Slice of Life… thank you Two Writing Teachers for the space to write and share! You can read other slices there.
The other day I was telling my students about how much I love the dash. H– one of my most antsy students– made an astute observation that knocked me off of my chair for its immediate and clever insight. But first– THE DASH! It is my favorite punctuation mark. It does so many things– so many different things– yet it seems to be underappreciated. It is not a hyphen, it’s longer than a hyphen. And it is much more creative than the hyphen. Poor hyphen, relegated to open compounds, split words at the end of lines, and number words. But the dash– it gets to imitate commas, show pauses or interruptions, it even gets to go freestyle and do whatever the author wants it to do. Ha! it says, find that in a style guide!
Dashes love informational text. Or writers love dashes – whatever.
“At times in the writing I have imagined myself as a defense attorney making the case for the “low status” narratives enjoyed by boys– comics, jokes, media games, plot-driven fiction, sports tables.”
“I will also take a more generous view toward the visual media– TV, movies, computer games– that children appropriate in their writing.”
In his book Misreading Masculinity, Thomas Newkirk often uses dashes instead of commas when showing apposition. He also uses them frequently as a sort of modified coordinating conjunction.
“I am arguing that the professional middle and upper-middle class, to which most teachers belong, sets up a hierarchy of cultural experience – and that TV watching is near the bottom of that hierarchy.”
When teaching my students how to navigate their way through informational text, understanding the various uses of the dash is vital. I find it useful to introduce after we have studied the various forms of sentences, so they can see how authors bend rules and change grammar to fit their purposes. But one of the things I love most about the dash is that it isn’t too technical for my students to grasp quickly. They sort of get it naturally.
Dashes are most fun to study in literature. Noticing it comes first, but it can be a useful window through which to understand a character more deeply. In Rain, Reign, the main character Rose is talking to a shelter employee on the phone. She is trying to locate her lost dog. The person on the other end of the phone says,
“… so glad you have called, we have been trying to–”
and Rose hangs up the phone. My students were great at noticing that Rose had cut off the speaker. “She got interrupted, that is what the dash shows.” Yep. But what else can we learn? They looked at me. My third eye must have been showing. “No, I really want you to think about this! What else can we learn from this? Let’s pretend we are the shelter employee. What was she going to say?” Oh! That question led us to some possibilities and another few questions. It opened our eyes to what was probably going on at this point, and we hadn’t been able to see it, yet. But now we could. Just from one little dash.
It can be a lot of fun to study what the character was going to say…
“Hold your fire!” Barbara Jean screamed. “I’m already half buried, and the ghost is biting me right on my–
or, when Bobby was about to be unceremoniously dunked into the creek by the town bullies,
“Then a giant hee-haw went up. “Underwear?? Preacher’s kid wears underwear? Whooooeeey. Got lace on it? Git it off.” They sure weren’t wearing any underwear. I had to notice, because they were so tall I only came up to their– “
These gems are from Richard Peck’s A Season of Gifts, where we get to once again spend some time with the righteously funny Mrs. Dowdell from the earlier A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder. Granted, these passages are right on the edge, but what better way to grab our students and convince them that books are full of the kinds of adventures they want to have. The laughter is real. Almost forbidden. But not quite.
So when H and the class were talking about dashes and noticing the one that gave us the big insight in Rain, Reign, I brought up the idea that we could use them in our own writing. If we had a moment where we– or a character we were writing about– were interrupted, a dash could show our reader just that. H started wiggling in his chair and waving his hand around. I reminded him that when there was space for his voice he was welcome to talk, he didn’t need to raise his– “Mrs. Skubik! If someone one day writes the story of your teaching us, there will be a lot of dashes!”