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Excerpt: Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Enjoy this excerpt from Mary Norris' new book Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #461

The most famous proponent of the dash was, of course, the poet Emily Dickinson, and it is because of her that, for me, the dash has a feminine slant. With Emily Dickinson at the table, my simplistic division of dashes into table forks and salad forks falls apart. She used dashes for everything, and sometimes for two things at once. If a different size and style of fork were assigned to each of her various dashes, the table setting would require not just dessert forks and fondue forks and those tiny forks used for teasing out snails but also tuning forks and pitchforks..

 

Dickinson’s dashes have given rise to an entire academic industry. There is still no agreement among scholars over which of our conventional dashes suits her typographically. I think of dashes as an aid to conventional syntax, so I am not the ideal copy editor for, or even reader of, Emily Dickinson. The scholar -Cristanne Miller writes, “In Dickinson’s poetry the dash’s -primary function is rarely syntactic, to mark a tangential phrase for the reader or enclose a narrative aside. Rather, dashes typically isolate words for emphasis, provide a rhythmical syncopation to the meter and phrase of a line, and act as hooks on attention, slowing the reader’s progress through the poem.” Some scholars think the dashes were a form of musical notation, with the length of the dash indicating the length of the pause, or even a tonal system. R. W. Franklin, whose edition of the poems for Harvard University’s Belknap Press is the approved academic text (there is both a single-volume “reading edition” and a three-volume variorum edition), writes that although the poet also used the comma and the period, she “relied mainly on dashes of varying length and position, tilting up or down as well as extending horizontally.” While some of Dickinson’s poems do have a period at the end, Miller writes that she “is apt to use the period ironically, to mock the expectation of final certainty.” She is fond of the “syntactically ambiguous dash,” which “both allows the sentence to continue (if we read the dash as dash) and makes the continuation a surprise (if we read the dash as end punctuation, which it often is in Dickinson’s poetry).”

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