February 8th, 2011 / 8:21 pm

I think I’m going to start putting my homework up on here: How important are Emily Dickinson’s dashes?


  1. Jimmy Chen

      maybe the Em dash was named after her

  2. Dreezer

      They were profound.

  3. Trey

      important in what sense?

      important to her own poetry: very important, since she chose to use them. I mean, I wouldn’t read an edition of dickinson that had the dashes edited out.

      important to the history of dashes(?) or punctuation usage in America(?): not very, I think

  4. Guest

      I always imagine the speaker jerking their head violently and with great poetic fervor whenever there’s an Emily dash.

  5. Trey

      actually the edition of dickinson that I have renders the dashes as hyphens, which I think is pretty lame, but I’ve been told it’s like the “definitive edition” or something. The Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by R. W. Franklin

      maybe there’s something in it about the choice of hyphens. hm.

  6. Trey

      actually the edition of dickinson that I have renders the dashes as hyphens, which I think is pretty lame, but I’ve been told it’s like the “definitive edition” or something. The Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by R. W. Franklin

      maybe there’s something in it about the choice of hyphens. hm.

  7. Patrick

      “this important”

  8. Patrick

      well, that failed.

  9. Jimmy Chen

      it looks like a person nervously carrying a manuscript

  10. gavin

      that he knows has way too many dashes in it

  11. michael


  12. Morgan

      Franklin wasn’t really interested in reproducing Dickinson’s manuscripts visually, for which he’s been criticized (by Susan Howe and others). But actually the spaced hyphens are much closer to Dickinson’s typical mark than a full em dash would be. At least I think so. See:


  13. mimi

      good effort tho –

  14. Adam Robinson

      Homework? Homework? We’re talking about POETRY, man, and you want to talk about HOMEWORK?

  15. deadgod

      The text I have to hand – Thomas Johnson’s – has en dashes, always spaced. The em dash, as you say, actually does not look like Dickinson’s manuscripts, where (as I’ve noticed, anyway) the dashes never touch letters and are as small as hyphens.

  16. Anonymous

      i know man… it’s like some people don’t write essays about emily dickinson in their free time, and that’s just really sad

  17. deadgod

      Everything you see on what you’re reading affects your understanding, but, with many punctuation marks, it’s difficult to say clearly how much impact, or even what impact, they have. For example, single or double quotation marks (for me, who quote directly only with double quotation marks, the British style (of single marks around direct quotations) looks, what, whispered or uncertain); for another, commas, dashes or parentheses to indicate interpositive remarks.

      To me, the primary guideline for a writer would be: When you write it, does it look/feel like what you want to say?

      For this reader of Dickinson, the dashes definitely parcel out the lines – rarely in syntactic segments, often in semantic pieces (where interpreting that parceling of those sections depends also on the meanings of those words), perhaps often mirroring some spoken rhythmic or tonal inflection.

      I’m not sure how one would address the question prescriptively – that is, how Dickinson always uses her dashes. – because I can’t think of a single, concise rule that describes all of them.

      Try reasoning deductively, empirically, from a small handful of her most famous (or your favorite) poems, and see if patterns emerge, patterns that you could then describe usefully.

  18. Anonymous

      yeah, i’ve been reading a bit about the debate over the visual representation of dickinson’s manuscripts. probably gonna do a follow-up post on it.

  19. Trey

      woah, you’re right. the only manuscripts I’ve really seen are some with longer dashes, but these definitely look more like hyphens. thanks for that.

  20. zusya
  21. gallala

      nobody reads your posts

  22. deadgod

      you’re only effective to the extent that you’re a benefit or detriment to other people, gallala

      nobody loves you gratuitously

      there might not be a single other person in the world to whom you are more valuable alive than dead

      so get your kicks on route 66

  23. letters journal

      Can someone post an Allen Iverson in Turkey update?

  24. Sam Cooney

      why so serious, seriousface?

  25. Sam Cooney

      “Hal and Mario’s mother had done her undergraduate Honors work at McGill on the use of hyphens, dashes, and colons in E. Dickinson.” (endnote 110, Infinite Jest, DFW)

      So go ask her, Andrew James Weatherhead, if that is your real name.

  26. Anonymous

      i’ll do one later tonight

  27. shaun gannon

      when is this due

      if it’s after this coming tuesday, i will ask martha nell smith who compiles emilydickinson.org because she’s my professor and i can get a quote from her 4 u

      alternately, you can look for one of her books on it, I assume she wrote a lot of them

  28. Sean

      WTF? We’re doing people’s homework now? I’d go Freud with the dashes. That will impress. If you’re not going to go Freud I guess I’d go Carl Lewis. I’d walk in class and loudly proclaim, “The dash was as important to Emily Dickinson as it was to Carl Lewis.”

      Then I’d walk out.

      (wear a scarf during all of this–maybe even pull a reverse flip of the scarf while emoting Carl-Lewis)

  29. Anonymous


  30. Anonymous

      it was tonight.

      it was just a discussion topic, nothing that serious. thank you for the offer though.

      that site seems pretty comprehensive.

  31. shaun gannon

      yeah, she rules

      she’s the one who came up with “Ribbed For Her Pleasure” when she did ad work for Trojan in the ’70s

  32. rebecca ruth

      The dashes are breathing punctuation. Like any meditative sport, the importance is dictated by what you feel you can get out of it.

  33. Anonymous
  34. Emily +/- Dickinson | HTMLGIANT

      […] I was asked to give a brief presentation on the importance of Emily Dickinson’s dashes.  (I posted about this a few days ago.)  My one sentence conclusion: “They’re nearly as important as the words are.”  […]