Much ink has been spilt over Emily Dickinson’s dashes. They are eccentrically frequent. They leave the relationship between her phrases, and even her words, undetermined. Sometimes they are said to stand for semantic ambiguity itself.
But what if they are just a convention? I’m sure that to a number of researchers, what I’m about to sketch out is old news. But since I’ve been putting it together for myself, I’ll sketch it out anyway. For the past year or two, I’ve been reading through lots of mid-nineteenth-century letters and diaries in manuscript, and I’ve come to believe that Emily Dickinson’s dashes are actually a very common and conventional way of punctuating in manuscript. In other words, no one in 1850 would have so punctuated a text they expected to print. But in a private letter, or even a business letter, it was unexceptionable. In fact, it may even have been more common than bothering to decide, at every pause, whether a comma, semicolon, colon, or period was warranted. (What pushed me over the edge was reading the letters of an accountant who punctuated à la Emily Dickinson.)
Physically, the mark isn’t in fact today’s dash, known to compositors as an em-dash, which looks like this: —. Instead it’s of variable horizontal length, and it lies at the bottom of the line of type, not the middle, so that it resembles today’s underscore character, that is, this: __.
Different people seem to use it in different ways. Some, like Dickinson, seem to rely on it exclusively. Others alternate it with a period. Still others, with a period and a comma. Often it marks a paragraph break without wasting a line of letterpaper. The practice in the last case seems to be thus: End the sentence of the first paragraph with a period. Leave a short space in the line, then insert the underscore dash, and start the new paragraph with a capital letter (which, in nineteenth-century manuscripts, is not always conventional at the start of a sentence). In other words, instead of writing,
B and I had quite a laugh over the anxiety of your friends.
I was sorry to hear about Olmstead.
you would write,
B and I had quite a laugh over the anxiety of your friends. __ I was sorry to hear about Olmstead.
More interesting still, the underscore dash doesn’t seem to be the only nonstandard mark of punctuation common enough to amount to a standard nonstandard. There’s also the use of the equals sign (=), in roughly the same way. And then there’s the double comma (,,), which seems to indicate a pause longer than a comma, but shorter than a full stop. Writers who use the double comma also resort to the double period (..), which seems to indicate a break between sentences longer than one period but shorter than three.