Dash (-) is one of those punctuation marks which create a dramatic impact in the written language. Though not used as frequently as other punctuation marks, such as commas, full stops, question marks, semi colons, inverted commas, dash have their own value in the language. One should be careful about the places where dash could be inserted. Using it indiscriminately and inappropriately should be avoided.
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language defines dash as a punctuation mark used to show a comment or afterthought at the end of a sentence, or simply an incomplete utterance.
A dash :
Denotes sudden change of thought
A dash indicates a sudden change of thought in a sentence. With the help of a dash, writers can break the expected continuity of an utterance and create a dramatic impact by suddenly introducing a line of thought which is least expected and sometimes runs contrary to whatever precedes it. A dash becomes a powerful tool in the hands of an experienced writer. It allows the writer to change the thought or tone in a sentence.
a. ‘What he said was true - or so I thought.
In the above sentence, the first part of the sentence, ‘What he said was true’ leads the reader to believe that he spoke the truth which was absolute. The second part of the sentence after the dash ‘or so I thought’ gives a dramatic impetus to the sentence and brings in the element of subjectivity (I thought his words to be true), which contradicts the expectations the reader might have after the reading the first part of the sentence.
b. Alisha and Paras - they are a fun couple will be visiting us this evening.
In the above sentence, the main idea appears to be that Alisha and Paras will be visiting us in the evening, but the extra information given to the reader purposely, ‘they are a fun couple’, is meant to insert a new thought and have a bearing on the reader’s understanding of Alisha and Paras.
Denotes an afterthought
A dash comes in handy when the writer wishes to write something as an afterthought added to the end of the sentence.
a. All the students of the class passed the exam - ever single one!
The dash in the above sentence helps the writer emphasis and reaffirm the main idea that all students, without any exception, passed the exam.
b. Akhil will travel to Paris the coming week - his first trip abroad.
The dash here introduces additional information, almost inserted as an afterthought.
The dash can take the place of commas, parenthesis or colons, producing different effects. For instance, it can replace commas, to create an emphasis which the commas miss,
You are the friend, the only friend, who stood by me.
You are the friend- the only friend -¬ who stood by me.
The dash can also replace parenthesis, which are more subtle and formal. Dash is considered less formal than parenthesis, for instance,
He sold off his land (600 acres), to the highest bidder.
He sold off his land – 600 acres - to the highest bidder.
Clearly, a dash, in most cases, is a useful tool to change the thought or introduce an afterthought in the sentence. Experienced writers know the difference between a dash and a comma, colon and other punctuation marks and use them for the intended impact.
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