Q: I’m in a writing group. One of my submissions was criticized for having too many dashes. I thought dashes were used in mid-sentence to denote a pause longer than a comma or a semicolon. After our last session, I came across some essays by William Styron in which two pages had 11 dashes. I was wondering what your opinion might be.
A: Many people overuse dashes, though if you’re a famous author you can do as you please!
A dash isn’t used merely to signify a pause in a sentence. Ellipses (…) do a better job of conveying a pause or hesitation. Here’s how I explain the correct use of dashes in my grammar book Woe Is I:
“The dash is like a detour; it interrupts the sentence and inserts another thought. A single dash can be used in place of a colon to emphatically present some piece of information: It was what Tina dreaded most—fallen arches. Or dashes can be used in pairs instead of parentheses to enclose an aside or an explanation: Her new shoes had loads of style—they were Ferragamos—but not much arch support.
“Dashes thrive in weak writing, because when thoughts are confused, it’s easier to stick in a lot of dashes than to organize a smoother sentence. Whenever you are tempted to use dashes, remember this:
“Use no more than two per sentence. And if you do use two, they should act like parentheses to isolate a remark from the rest of the sentence: After the flight, Tina looked—and she’d be the first to admit it—like an unmade bed.
“If the gentler and less intrusive parentheses would work as well, use them instead. Tina’s luggage (complete with her return ticket) appeared to be lost.“
It’s OK to use dashes once in a while. But a lot of them can get boring. Think of them as spice. A dash of cayenne is wonderful, but too much of it can ruin a good dish.