As punctuation goes dashes are on the flashy side, and rightly so. The legitimate full-sized dash serves a great purpose in the universe. For sure!  But is there a time when "a little dash'll do you?"  A paltry, punctuating, no-flash dash?  Never!

            These little dashtards may have a bit of a line, even enjoy a half-life of sorts but they don't exactly radiate. Advocates of loose writing may have the chutzpah to call them dashes but obviously they're nothing more than misplaced, unintended, undersized, uncalled for, disruptive hyped-up hyphens—doing the wrong job, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and for no good reason.

            Here's an em dash, or close enough

            Here's an en dash, or close enough:

            Here's a hyphen:

            So a hyphen may be great as a hyphen. But it's not a dash!  Wherever it’s going, it’ll be lucky if it gets there.

            Not exactly dashes, not exactly hyphens, not hardly helpful, surely to no useful purpose and anything but stylish or—ahem—dashing, I'm referring to what some of us pass off as a "dash" but which deserves no credibility or justification as a dash.

            Of course with partisan politics, unpardonable pardons, obvious rationales, paid-for-policies, cliché comments, polished puffery and the like, we’re already hearing fog horns; and confusion is rampant. Many a line of supposed explanation on some key issue often strikes us as dubious if not ridiculous. Even our High Court rulings, as with the presidential voting in Florida, have become questionable to many.

            Whatever the line, we’ve grown skeptical nowadays and we’re not easily convinced.  Too often we feel we're getting only half the story and, like that half-dash, meaning and comprehension get short shrift. As T.S. Eliot once wrote, "Meaning is a sop while poetry does its work."  The physicists give us principles of indeterminacy, of undecidability, of probability and improbability, of chaos and irrationality, of cause and effect dissipated into manifest complexity. On those rare occasions when we do know something—even when we know it “in our bones”—it's still not always easy to put one's finger on the smoking gun that satisfies all.

             In the case of the "dirty dashes," however, the evidence is there—undoubted, undeniable, unquestionable, irrefutable, redundantly indubitable!

            One might arbitrarily leave a space or close up the space before and after a dash. One might arbitrarily decide when or when not to use a dash. Fine! But we can't arbitrarily make a dash out of an anorexic, insupportable pretense of a dash. Some authors, editors, publishers, readers might not notice. Others might not care or know the difference. Yet finally the dash is what it is (or isn't what it isn't) and the infusion of these undeniably deleterious "dashes" into the text makes for less than fully professional writing, editing and publishing.

            Looking as if these half-dashed language violators come right off a lineup of possible language abusers, more and more these debilitated smidgens—poor excuses for the more high-toned dash—have been making their way online and into print. This occurs not only in the more rushed emails, electronic forums, chat lines, online and off-line newspapers, magazines, journals, newsletters, flyers, brochures, slide projections or the like. You can find them in electronic books, print-on-demand books, hardbound books, softcover books, coffee table books. Like weevils and worse they've infiltrated into fiction and non-fiction, into text books, how-to books, technical books, cook books, religious books, science fiction or fantasy or—few if any quarters  are safe—children's books.

            Whether the product of mechanical mishap (snipped down to undersize in the translation from one word processing program to another) or the product of some kind of "mad writer's" disease, dirty dashes are simply all over the place. You'd think someone would notice, especially since the dash, which separates words, is designed mostly to do the exact opposite of the hyphen.

            One can only imagine what others might say or might have said about these dashtardly offenses were congress to fund some multimillion dollar years long investigation. This pint-sized "communist line" as Joe McCarthy would have put it … this "damn thing," as the plain spoken Truman would have suggested … "this abomination," as John F. Kennedy might have observed … "this #$%$#^& thing," as Lyndon Johnson would probably have noted … this "un-American line," as Eisenhower might have said in the McCarthy years … "This infiltration by pinkos," as Nixon might have phrased it … "This incorrigible, effete left wing obfuscation," as Nixon's one time Vice President Spiro Agnew might have told the press … "This evil line of communication," as Reagan would likely have said … this "egregious element," as William Buckley—would have said… this "tiny detail," as Clinton might eventually acknowledge … this "conspicuous confusion of communication," as Gore would likely intone … this "whatchamagig," as Bush would probably put it, Texas style.

            The perspectives and descriptions shift but surely the "dirty dashes" weigh heavily—like the tons of termites supposedly out there for every man, woman and child on earth—against the disquisition by the great scientist H. Poincaré. Poincaré held, as best I recall, that "Nothing is objective except what is identical for all." But forget Berkeley. Forget Hume. Forget those metaphysicians, philosophers, linguists and a good number of the latest postmodernists and scientists, too. Never mind those clever theoretical denials even about the reality of the world "out there" somewhere beyond the blurred edge of our minds. Believe me, they're out there! The evidence is everywhere. And they're bad! They're the dirty dashes! And so expect Ron Quixote to strike them down wherever they try to butt into line without a full ticket.

            Ron Quixote knows a bad thing when he sees it! Any computer program can make a dash, the shorter en dash or the longer em dash, and yet all too often we get neither. Unfortunately, few if any have noticed or complained even as this plague of ill literacy spreads perilously across the land. Others have their own high horses, of course. Meanwhile, it is with such invidious evils in mind that Ron Quixote, clearly recognizing a monstrous plague when he sees one, takes up his cudgel in righteous indignation ready to fight down to the last dirty dash.

            Sometimes you just have to redraw the line at bad writing!


By Ron Kenner — Ron Quixote Battles the Dirty Dashes