July 11, 2015

"Women seem to use [the dash] a lot … . as if it were a woman’s prerogative to stop short without explanation..."

"... to leave things open-ended. A friend of mine once swept aside all rules governing punctuation by saying 'Whenever you feel a pause, you put in a dash.'"
She provides a strong—and moving—example with the note from Jacqueline Kennedy to Richard Nixon, responding to his letter of condolence after President Kennedy’s assassination. The note is punctuated entirely by dashes, and Norris shows what it would be like if punctuated by a copy editor: “The conventionally punctuated version gives the prose the appearance of being tightly under control, buttons buttoned, snaps snapped, and jaw clamped shut. Jackie’s dashes are spontaneous and expressive, full of style and personality.”
She = Mary Norris, author of "Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen."

ADDED: The 2 versions of Jackie's letter don't appear at the link, but I found Jackie's letter (and you'll have to picture it with periods and commas_:
Dear Mr. Vice President –

I do thank you for your most thoughtful letter –

You two young men – colleagues in Congress – adversaries in 1960 – and now look what has happened – Whoever thought such a hideous thing could happen in this country –

I know how you must feel – so long on the path – so closely missing the greatest prize – and now for you, all the question comes up again – and you must commit all you and your family’s hopes and efforts again – Just one thing I would say to you –if it does not work out as you have hoped for so long – please be consoled by what you already have – your life and your family –

We never value life enough when we have it – and I would not have had Jack live his life any other way – thought I know his death could have been prevented, and I will never cease to torture myself with that –

But if you do not win – please think of all that you have – With my appreciation – and my regards to your family.  I hope your daughters love Chapin School as much as I did –

Jacqueline Kennedy


madAsHell said...

1. Collect the underpants.
2. -
3. Profit.

clint said...

Good grief.

I clicked through to read the "strong -- and moving -- example."

It wasn't there.

Just the same quoted assertion that such was provided.

Quaestor said...

In Victorian times women were held to be perpetually in a state of tutelage. Feminism was a rebellion against that prejudice, nevertheless feminists seem to always confirm the biases of patriarchy by thoughtlessly insisting on women's prerogatives.

YoungHegelian said...

...the disappearing feminine forms of vocational designation, such as “authoress” and “poetess,” and wishes them, good naturedly, good riddance. “In English, the feminine suffix has a whiff of the diminutive, as if to say, ‘The little lady sometimes turns her hand to poesy.’”

Yeah, you know, like dominatrix.

Quaestor said...

Do women show a preference for the em-dash or the en-dash? Good style demands consistent use of one form or the other, one shouldn't mix the two willy-nilly. (That's a hyphen, by the way.) The evident argument of the cited article is one must not expect conventional punctuation from a woman; that's an infringement of her prerogatives. Is insisting on good style even without good punctuation a similar micro-aggression?

Our keyboards only offer a hyphen, which if used twice in succession in a word processor application such as Microsoft Word is interpreted as a long dash, i.e. the em-dash.

The text entry applet supplied by Blogger doesn't make these interpretative substitutions. Long dashes are just two hyphens, like so --

Below are the two dashes exemplified, pasted from Word.

This is an example of the em-dash—behold!
This is an example of the en-dash – behold!

MayBee said...

I use dashes however I please.

Ron said...

If dashes were rashes copy editors would scratch....

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Terrific dash wielders: Kerouac (Visions of Cody, Big Sur) and the 18th century British (Fielding, Sterne, etc.) They'd like MayBee's comment.

Just this week there's been a lot of media attention for semicolon tattoos. They have a serious purpose:


sinz52 said...

A few points:

1. In Microsoft Word on Windows:
To enter an en dash, hit Ctrl Num- (that's the minus sign on the keypad on the right)
To enter an em dash, hit Ctrl Alt Num-

2. As a copyeditor, I have seen manuscripts by male authors that overused dashes too, where commas, semicolons or even colons would be more appropriate.

3. Having said that, there do appear to be statistically significant differences between how men and women write, both fiction and nonfiction.
Women appear to use more pronouns, and men appear to use more noun specifers (articles, quantifiers, and possessives). Here's an interesting paper on that:


Someone built an automated tool to check this.


It's useful if you're writing a novel or short story where the protagonist is narrating in the first person. If the protagonist is female, you want the narrative to read like a woman wrote it.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

I freely admit that I overuse dashes. Also: semicolons and parentheses. But I can't see using a dash in place of a semicolon, let alone a comma or a colon. All have their uses, but their uses are just not the same.

Hmmm, re: gendered writing styles, do you think it might just be a reflection of subject matter? I don't understand why women should use more pronouns than men, unless it's a direct reflection of the subject matter. Maybe women concentrate (in fiction and non-fiction alike) on relationships more than men do, say. I can't comment, because my professional writing is mostly about classical music, and my non-professional writing mainly on blogs like this one. In neither case is there any need for recourse to a pile of pronouns.

Beldar said...
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Beldar said...
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Jason said...

I blame Emily Dickenson.

Beldar said...

Perhaps Jackie's punctuation would have been more orthodox if she were writing in French?

Every punctuation mark — be it the humble en-dash, the powerful em-dash, the fraternal twins of the colon and semicolon, the comma (and its subclass, the Oxford comma, to which I adhere), the parenthesis, the ellipsis, and of course the period — has its use. A skillful writer can construct sentences and paragraphs as rigorously planned and orderly as any good and fully debugged piece of software.

PS: Prof. Althouse, re-read your update: You'll blush at "and it's you'll" and you'll find an unbalanced set of parentheses. The best of us still benefit from an editor, but that's a luxury bloggers usually lack. Cheers!

sinz52 said...

Thomson: "Hmmm, re: gendered writing styles, do you think it might just be a reflection of subject matter?"

No, they have found that difference extends even to scientific papers. The much greater use of pronouns by female authors occurs with both fiction and nonfiction. (The much greater use of noun specifiers by male authors does occur more with nonfiction than fiction.) From the paper:

From a functional point of view (Halliday 1994), this suggests that different foci characterize the way male and female writers signal to the reader what “things” are being talked about. The pronouns of women's writing, as all pronouns, present things in a relational way: "I know that
you know what I am referring to, therefore I will present the information as if we both know it". The specifiers found more frequently in men's writings send the message of: "here are some details about the things being mentioned". As we shall see, these differences align with
differences between what has been termed (Biber 1995) "involved" and "informative" writing, as well as with differences between fiction and non-fiction.

I have pushed a number of excerpts (both fiction and nonfiction) through the "Gender Guesser" tool I mentioned, and it's fairly accurate in identifying the gender of the author--as long as the author is a native English speaker. It seems to get thrown off by people who learned English as a second language and still use it in a relatively rudimentary way by mentally translating from their native tongue.

T J Sawyer said...

A fascinating note from Jackie - did she expect him to run in 64? - or just realize that he would have to pursue the prize again?

The note of condolence and response apparently hang together at the RMN library. Someone among the commenters must have a picture. Nixon's condolence note contained this prompt:

"While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents, I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947."

Chuck said...

I thought Jackie WAS a copy editor...

Chuck said...

I thought Jackie WAS a copy editor...

Babaluigi said...

Oh heavens, I have just now realized that I use the ellipsis in place of the dash...but pretty much only when commenting here or sending emails or texts to family and friends. It does not mean anything except that I am using it as a shortcut out of more formal writing...

Anyone who has been paying attention lately should realize that an American who can create actual whole sentences at all, is an increasingly rare bird. That one holds a degree or is a highly successful businessman is, in my experience, no guarantee of an ability to write something which does not read like instructions which have been poorly translated from Chinese.

I do not claim to have anything approaching perfect grammar, but I question whether anyone is actually being taught how to write in any schools! I do know that one of the local state universities added a special writing class to their business degree requirements because it had become obvious that those crazy kids needed to be taught that the shorthand they were using in their social media communications was inappropriate in business communications...LOL

Quaestor said...

A fascinating note from Jackie...

Here's one from Jacqueline to the Nixons regarding her White House visit. The punctuation is eccentric (using a question mark where a comma is demanded) but she doesn't overuse the dash. What's more interesting is her handwriting which is almost masculine - like an engineer's script - in its regularity and clarity. Her hand is almost entirely printing, except some of the capitals which are fulsomely cursive - a dead giveaway regarding sex of the scribe, I should think - note the pregnant D, the buxom M, the positively priapic P in "Mr. President" - a freudian fantasyland!

Here's here famous post-assasination missive to Nixon. Note her use of the honorific title rather than his name. Who today respects that custom regarding former vice presidents? Note as well her hand - it's still largely printed, yet less disciplined than in 1971, due to her emotional condition, no doubt. Punctuation other than misapplied dashes is completely absent, at least to my eye. The formation of the capital V and P in "Dear Mr. Vice President" is also interesting, no?

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

sinz52, I'll have to run some of my own stuff through the "Gender Guesser." I will be surprised if it pegs me reliably as female, but not precisely astonished.

clint said...

First thought -- there's a single period in the letter, and it's not at the end.

Next -- I like the dashes -- it reads very stream-of-consciousness or direct-transcription of the way people really talk.

The one bit of the letter that doesn't work for me: "Just one thing I would say to you –if it does not work out as you have hoped for so long – please be consoled by what you already have – your life and your family –"

Splitting "just one thing" into three separate thoughts by dashes doesn't work.

Sammy Finkelman said...

thought I know his death could have been prevented, and I will never cease to torture myself with that –

Did she really write thought or is that a misreading for "though"

I am not sure why a lot of women write like that, but I do think it is more typically of women. Maybe they pick it up from each other.

Maybe it is way of avoiding finality.