My Two-Year Study of Jane Austen’s Dashes

My presentation poster for the project. Click here to view the poster full size.

Brief intro before getting into the essay:

In the spring of 2017, I took a class on Jane Austen’s unpublished works. Something that struck me was how many dashes she used, so I decided to make my final research paper on the topic. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

Here are two of my favorite findings you will see in the essay:

  • The data I collected suggests some of the estimated dates of works in Juvenilia are incorrect, specifically “Amelia Webster” and “Edgar and Emma.”
  • If we compare Austen’s published novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) to her unpublished, unedited fiction written around the same time, we can estimate that around 6,019 dashes would have been nixed by her editor.

This is my passion project. The months I spent hand counting dashes, interpreting the Austen’s different usage of them, and making graph upon graph to illustrate my findings makes this project feel like more than just an essay I wrote in college. It’s near and dear to me, and I hope you enjoy it. If you are not interested in 18th century literature or Jane Austen, this is not for you.

The following essay is copyrighted and personal property of the author, Kressie Kornis. This work may not be republished or quoted without citation or permission of Ms. Kornis.

Jane Austen’s Dashes

18th Century Punctuation:

The arrival of the dash can be attributed to twelfth-century Italian writer Boncompagno da Signa’s proposal of an entirely new punctuation system comprising of only two marks: a slash (/) represented a pause while a dash (—) terminated sentences (Houston). Signa’s slash would later evolve into the comma, but instead of becoming absorbed by the period, the dash has remained intact and has since developed more usages (Houston). In the eighteenth century, the dash had two functions: it denoted omission of a word or in a sentence, and it symbolized where a significant pause is required. Although eighteenth-century grammar writers advocated the syntactical function of the dash, the rhetorical function was approved by authors like Peter Walkden Fogg, eighteenth-century grammarian, who considered the dash to be a useful punctuation mark that could be doubled or tripled according to the author’s rhetorical needs (Sánchez, 80). Eighteen-century English grammar academic authors, such as James Buchanan and Abraham Crocker often referred to the dash as the ‘double period,’ indicating the pause should be equivalent to two periods (Sánchez, 80).


Jane Austen liked using dashes, to say the least. We don’t see dashes as often in her published novels because presumably most of them have been taken out in editing, but fortunately her unpublished writings offer a glimpse into her style of utilizing the dash.


While reading Austen’s Juvenilia and Later Manuscripts, I noticed Austen’s upward trend of dashes over the course of her life that I had not observed in Austen’s published novels. This observation led me to study the dashes—I began by hand-counting her dashes in the 2008 Cambridge Editions of Juvenilia and Later Manuscripts, not focused on hyphens or those used in place of a proper noun. To avoid error, each dash printed was slashed with pencil and a running tally was updated per page. The only exception to this, is the final and original transcript of Persuasion, which is accessible online via the British Library. Each specific use of the dash, including dash-hybrids, was put into a spreadsheet, and then interpreted and made into graphs. For each work, I included the word count, total amount of dashes and dash ratio, and total number of dash-hybrids and dash-hybrid ratio, in my research and then organized that data in chronological order. To compare the dashes Austen used in works of all word counts, I calculated the average dash ratios by dividing the number of dashes used by the word count, then multiplying by 100 to get an easily comparable number. I estimated some of the word counts of the Juvenilia pieces because there is not an online source to get the exact count. Using the numbers from the pieces of which I knew the exact length, I found the average word count of a page in Juvenilia to be around 312 words, which I then multiplied by the page lengths of the unknown works to get a close estimation. These results were then compared to dash trends of the eighteenth century and to the amount of dashes in Austen’s published works.

Note on the Editions Used

The two central texts used in my research were The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen: Juvenilia and The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen: Later Manuscripts, both published in 2008. Both collections state there are not any changes to the punctuation from the transcripts, with the small exception of ‘The Watsons’ and ‘Sanditon.’

This edition of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia was prepared from the surviving holograph manuscripts, ‘Volume the First’ in the Bodleian Library and ‘Volume the Second’ and ‘Volume the Third’ in the British Library. According to its ‘Note on the Text,’ it follows the manuscript notebooks closely, while recognizing that a printed transcription must diverge from a handwritten source in certain ways: “No changes have been made to Austen’s spelling, capitalization, paragraphing or punctuation. Her idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies, which form part of the texture of her prose and which can help establish the date of a particular item, have been carefully preserved” (Juvenilia, lxviii).

Like Juvenilia, regarding changes in Later Manuscripts, its preface states, “With the exception of the reading texts of ‘The Watsons’ and ‘Sanditon,’ we have not changed Jane Austen’s spelling, capitalization, paragraphing, or punctuation; her idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies, which form part the texture of her work, have been carefully preserved” (Later Manuscripts, xv). Because the incomplete works ‘The Watsons’ and ‘Sanditon’ both exist in what seems to be a first-draft state, “[Cambridge University Press] therefore decided that, rather than drawing an ‘authoritative’ text from the manuscript, with textual tones describing the revisions, additions and deletions, we would offer a line-by-line transcription of the two manuscripts” in the appendices (Later Manuscripts, xvi). They do clarify, however, they cannot indicate whether revisions were made at the time of first writing or later. The ‘reading’ versions of the text have been “discreetly edited to reflect basic publishing conventions of the early nineteenth century” (Later Manuscripts, xvi). The edits of ‘The Watsons’ and ‘Sanditon’ included adding quotation marks, inserting line breaks after speech, splitting long paragraphs, reducing her heavy use of initial capital letters, converting underlined words into italics, normalizing superscripts, expanding grammatical contractions and contractions for dates, titles, and names (i.e. ‘tho’ to ‘though,’ ‘Oct’ to ‘October,’ and ‘H’ to ‘Heywood’), correcting idiosyncratic spellings such as veiw, freind, chearful, agreable, adjusting punctuation where the text seems to require it for the sake of sense or common usage, and harmonizing Austen’s inconsistent use of the apostrophe. Most importantly, concerning the dash research stated in this paper, the preface notes,

Despite clear evidence that early nineteenth-century printing practice would have insisted on extensive adjustment, we have chosen to make very few changes in Austen’s use of the dash. It is clear to us that the dash is so characteristic of her style, and so bound up with the rhythm of her prose, that removal, or substantial reduction, would risk changing the nature of the text in a way that could not be justified in a scholarly edition. (Later Manuscripts, xvii)

To emphasize how little Austen’s punctuation is altered from the original transcript, there are 881 dashes in “The Watsons” transcript, and 879 in the reading version. Both introductions of Juvenilia and Later Manuscripts has lead me to believe the data collected for the sake of this paper regarding dashes is accurate, or at least as accurate as possible.

Findings Summary

Figure 1
Fig. 1

The data I collected suggests some of the estimated dates of works in Juvenilia are incorrect, specifically “Amelia Webster” and “Edgar and Emma.” In Jane Austen’s Juvenilia and Later Manuscripts combined, she uses a total of 3,193 dashes out of 142,743 words. In total, this averages to just two dashes per 100 words with an average dash ratio of 2.3, but Austen appears to have used dashes more frequently as her life progressed. One of her first fiction pieces in Juvenilia, “Frederic and Elfrida” (1787), has a dash ratio of .14, whereas “Sanditon” (1817) has a dash ratio of 5.45, an increase of around 3793% in thirty years. Shown in the graph above, the frequency of which Austen uses dashes in 1787 does not follow the trends of her dash usage in other Juvenilia works, which will be explored in this essay.

Published Dashes

If we compare Austen’s published novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) to her unpublished, unedited fiction written around the same time, we can estimate that around 6,019 dashes would have been nixed by her editor. This was found by using the numbers from Pride and Prejudice: the novel features 395 dashes out of 122,189 words, an average dash ratio of 0.32, much less than the ratios of unedited works written around the same time. If the ratio is replaced with 5.25, which is what figure one suggests what Austen’s average dash ratio around 1813 would be, it can be approximated how many of Austen’s dashes were lost. Unfortunately, since the original manuscript of Pride and Prejudice has not survived, it is impossible to know exactly how many dashes were removed.


However, we do have a manuscript to Austen’s novel, Persuasion, written from 1815 to 1816. Persuasion’s manuscript is the only original manuscript known to exist out of the six major novels by Austen. The graph below depicts a comparison between 3,350 words pulled from the initial last two chapters of Austen’s original transcript of Persuasion to 3,350 words pulled from a chapter in the published version that most closely resembles the initial transcript:

Figure 2
Fig. 2

Austen’s manuscript pages used to collect this data were passed on to Anna Austen Lefroy, Austen’s niece, and were eventually published in part by James Edward Austen-Leigh, her nephew, as part of the second-edition of his memoir in 1871. The two canceled chapters of Persuasion in Austen’s manuscript were titled chapter ten and chapter eleven. Chapter ten reflects chapter twenty-two and twenty-three of the published version, and the eleventh chapter is essentially the same as chapter twenty-four of the published version. Austen’s draft features 244 dashes out of the 3,350 words pulled—a ratio of 7.28. The published Persuasion has just eight dashes, giving it a ratio of 2.38, meaning it has 67% less dashes.

Austen’s Letters and Other Casual Writings

Austen appears to write dashes more frequently in her casual writings than in her fiction. In ‘Opinions of Mansfield Park’ of 1814 and ‘Opinions of Emma’ of 1817, Austen writes of her friends and family’s thoughts on the respectable novel. Both pieces repetitively use a dash following a name to introduce their opinion of the given work, as shown in ‘Opinions of Mansfield Park’: “[Mrs.] Lefroy—liked it, but though it a mere Novel.—” (Later Manuscripts, 234). In ‘Opinions of Mansfield Park,’ Austen uses 114 dashes out of 1,560 words—a ratio of 7.3. Additionally, in ‘Opinions of Emma,’ written in the last year of her life in 1817, Austen greatly exceeds the dashes of ‘Opinions of Mansfield Park,’ written year three years prior. ‘Opinions of Emma,’ features 112 dashes written out of 1,310 words, a dash ratio of 8.55. That’s around a 17% increase over the course of three years of Austen’s dash usage in this particular style of writing.

According to Linda Tieken-Boon Van Ostade’s 2014 In Search of Jane Austen: The Language of the Letters, a total of 5,376 dashes were found in Austen’s holograph letters from 1796 to 1817, around 43.4 dashes per 1,000 words (Tieken-Boon, 100). In comparison, Austen’s fiction dashes written from 1794 to 1817 in the three novels of Later Manuscripts is about 32.7 dashes per 1,000 words, implying Austen used dashes more often in casual writing. “The function of the dash in [Austen’s] letters is indeed somewhat different than the purpose for which it is used in the writing of fictional dialogue,” mostly because of the occurrences where she used dashes in her letters to mark quotations from the rest of the letter (Tieken-Boon, 101). Tieken-Boon uses Austen’s letter fifteen, written to Cassandra in 1798, as an example:

Admiral Gambier in reply to my father’s application writes as follows.—‘As it is usual to keep…some promotions in that quarter.’—There!

(Letter fifteen, 1798)

However, dashes used to mark off quotations commonly appear in Austen’s fiction as well, but it is likely Tieken-Boon’s assertion is only considering Austen’s published novels. For example, we can see the similarities between the example above and an excerpt from ‘The Watsons’ of 1803:

“I will tell you how it was.—I see you are dying to know.—Says Howard to Lord Osborne—”— 

(Later Manuscripts, 131)

Additionally, Tieken-Boon shows Austen used dashes in her letters to mark important messages, mark silence, and introduce new topics rather than having paragraph breaks. Tieken-Boon attributes this to Austen’s habit of filling every available space in her letters, primarily to avoid the cost of extra postage (Tieken-Boon, 102). Although we see similar methods of dash usage in Austen’s fiction writing, it is not nearly as frequent as in her casual writing.

Fiction Dashes: Longer Works

Figure 3

Austen’s first piece surpassing 10,000 words is epistolary “Love and Freindship,” of 1790 in Juvenilia. It features 147 dashes out of 10,453 words, a ratio of 1.41. The letters in “Love and Freindship” feature dashes to begin sentences, end sentences, end letters, and occasionally placed in the title of the letter. Sometimes Austen ends a letter with just one dash “[a]dieu / Laura— ” (106) or two, “Adeiu—Laura—” (125). There doesn’t seem to be a pattern as to why she placed the dashes where she did in the closings of the letters in “Love and Freindship,” or why she often did not capitalize “adieu.” “Love and Freindship” also seems to be Austen’s first time using parenthesis regularly in her epistolary works. The parenthesis in “Love and Freindship” indicate who is speaking in the dialogue of the letter, commonly used to split a dialogue for clarification: “‘I think there must,’ (replied my Father) ‘I fancy the Servants are returned; (said I) I think I hear Mary going to the Door.’ ‘I’m glad of it’ (cried my father) ‘for I long to know who it is’” (107). We see this use of parenthesis in short epistolary “The Three Sisters” of 1791 and “Lesley Castle” of 1792, but in later longer epistolary works like “Lady Susan” of 1794 we see this done with dashes rather than parenthesis, showing this trend was short-lived.

Austen’s dash usage increases vastly in her three fiction works “Lady Susan,” “The Watsons,” and “Sanditon.” Note how the graph of Later Manuscripts below has an average dash ratio range between 3.0-6.0, whereas the Juvenilia graph had a range of just 0.0-1.4. The three stories of Later Manuscripts feature a total of 2,975 dashes out of 64,081 words—that’s 2,322 more dashes than the 653 dashes of the 70,051 words in Juvenilia.’

Figure 4
Fig. 4

The first story of the Later Manuscripts, epistolary “Lady Susan” of 1794, features 833 dashes out of 23,095 words—a ratio of 3.61. This is close to where Austen left off in 1793, with the 3.20 ratio of “The first Act of A Comedy” in Juvenilia. Remarkably, 93% of the dashes in “Lady Susan” are hybrid, 578 being the period-dash. In 1793, Austen’s period-dash slowly surpasses her use of dash-periods by a count of ten to seven. The following year, period-dashes exceeds dash-periods 578 to zero in “Lady Susan.” Prior to 1793, dash-periods dominated her dash-hybrids; in Juvenilia, 63% of dash-hybrids are dash-periods, and 12% are period-dashes. In contrast, Later Manuscript’s dash-periods account for just 1.2% of dash hybrids, and the period-dashes 60%. The following is an example of a cluster of dash-hybrids in Lady Susan, very common throughout the story:

“‘…Uncle about it —and’—‘You therefore spoke to my Brother to engage his interference’; —said I, wishing to save her the explanation.—‘No—but I wrote to him.—I did indeed.—I got up this morning before it was light—I was two hours about it—& when my letter was done, I though[t] I never should have the courage to give it.—’” (49)

As shown above, Austen expands her habit of using dashes dramatically in the dialogue in the letters of her epistolary works when compared to those in Juvenilia.

Almost ten years later, “The Watsons” of 1803 features 880 dashes out of 17,922 words, a ratio of 4.94. Much less than “Lady Susan,” 77% of the dashes in “The Watsons” are hybrid, showing a plateau in her use of dash-hybrids. The following excerpt shows Austen’s dash usage in dialogue has increased since 1794, even though her hybrid usage has decreased:

“‘Yes—but—there was a mistake—I had misunderstood—I did not know I was engaged—I thought it had been for the two dances after, if we [staid] too long—but Captain Hunter assured me it was for those very two.— ’— ”  (105)

The dashes Austen writes shown above continue to indicate a train of thought and short pauses in the speaker’s sentence. These dashes allow us to hear the speaker’s speech patterns and thought process, and without them, it sounds very differently: “Yes, but there was a mistake. I had misunderstood. I did not know I was engaged.” The latter is far less dramatic, and with dashes, the reader has a more rounded character with a personality that would not be as palpable sans dashes.

Out of 23,164 words, “Sanditon” of 1817 has 1,262 dashes—a ratio of 5.45. In comparison, “Lady Susan” of thirteen-years prior is of similar word count, and has 833 dashes. The following is an example of a way Austen commonly wrote description in “Sanditon” spoken by Mr. Parker referring to Sanditon:

‘“—Nature had marked it out—had spoken in most intelligible characters—the finest, purest sea breeze on the coast—acknowledged to be so—excellent bathing—fine hard sand—deep water ten yards from the shore—no mud—no weeds—no slimy rocks—never was there a place…’” (143)

The dashes in the Austen’s description shown above show a different type of thought process not displayed previously. The dashes here seem to indicate the speaker slowing down his words, pausing to think of how to perfectly describe Sanditon. The dashes here seem to flow more smoothly than the previous example from “The Watsons.”

Fiction Dashes: Short Stories

Figure 5

In the early pieces of Austen’s Juvenilia, dashes are used significantly less than compared to her later manuscripts, as shown in the graph above. Written from 1787 to 1793, dashes were commonly used in place of names and towns at first, and more for emphasizing later. As previously mentioned, comparing the data gathered in Juvenilia and Later Manuscripts has led me to question the estimated datings of 1787. The following year, 1788 has an average dash ratio of .03 out of 3,635 written words, One lone dash appears in the six stories written that year in “Sir William Montague,” out of its 786 words. In contrast, the previous year 1787 features fifteen dashes out of 3,371 words, 27% of which are hybrid. The manner of which Austen uses dashes in 1787 does not follow the trends of her dash usage in other Juvenilia, including dash-hybrids. It raises eyebrows that Austen would use only one dash in the year of 1788 if the three works of 1787 were actually written in 1787, especially considering Austen wrote more words in 1788 than 1787.

Austen’s first epistolary piece of Juvenilia, “Amelia Webster,” has no indication of when it was written, but is thought to be around 1787. “Amelia Webster” features five dashes for emphasis out of 434 words, a ratio of 1.15. With a 1.15 ratio, though, it is tough to say if it was actually written in 1787, for Austen’s writings the following year use dashes significantly less. We do not see a dash ratio surpassing 1.0 until 1790, with the 1.41 ratio of epistolary “Love and Freindship.” Another reason for its dating to be an abnormality is a period-dash-period-hybrid in the fifth letter of “Amelia Webster”: “…Bath last Monday.—. I have many things…” (59). The next time we see a period-dash-period is not until three years later, in “Jack and Alice” and “Love and Freindship.” Following Austen’s dash ratios and dash-hybrid patterns, combined with noting its epistolary writing style not appearing again for a few years, have further emphasized this possibility. Considering its genre, dash ratio, and dash-hybrid usage, I would estimate “Amelia Webster” to be written around 1790-1792 rather than 1787.

Similarly, I have come to question the dating of the other two writings of 1787 for equally curious reasons. In “Edgar and Emma,” there are seven dashes used for emphasis out of 755 words, making it a ratio of 0.93. Most notably, two of these dashes are hybrids, both being dash-periods, which does not appear again until once in 1789’s “The Visit.” This leads me to estimate “Edgar and Emma” could have been written closer to 1790-1791 because it seems unlikely to use dash-periods twice in 1787 out of three total works, and zero times in any of the six works of the following year.

If we look at the third and final story written in 1787, “Frederic and Elfrida,” it uses far less dashes than the previous two. “Frederic and Elfrida” uses three dashes out of its 2,182 words, giving it a ratio of 0.14. Its word count is faintly less than twice the length of “Edgar and Emma” and “Amelia Webster” combined. Compared to the 0.93 ratio in “Edgar and Emma” and the 1.15 in “Amelia Webster,” the low dash to word count ratio of “Frederic and Elfrida” seems out of place. Additionally, one of the three dashes Austen uses in “Frederic and Elfrida” is a comma-dash, which isn’t seen again until “The Visit” (1789), similarly to “Edgar and Emma.”


Austen used more dashes as she aged, and even more so in her casual writing. Austen’s emphasis dashes give the reader more insight of the speaker’s personality, allowing a more meaningful reading experience. Furthermore, following Austen’s dash trends in her unpublished works suggests a few of the dates of the short stories in Juvenilia may not have been estimated correctly. My research also suggests we lack a substantial amount of intended dashes in Austen’s published works, and although knowing the removal of Austen’s punctuation style was in the best interest in Austen, I am still curious to know what exactly has been taken away in taking away that part of her voice.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen: Juvenilia. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Austen, Jane. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen: Later Manuscripts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Houston, Keith. “Culture – The Mysterious Origins of Punctuation.” BBC, BBC, 2 Sept. 2015,

Tieken-Boon van, Ingrid. In Search of Jane Austen: The Language of the Letters. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Sánchez, Beatriz del R. Medina. “Punctuation in Eighteenth-Century English Grammars.” University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. 2015.

Sutherland, Kathryn. “Jane Austen’s Dealings with John Murray and his Firm.” The Review of English Studies: Oxford University Press 64, no. 2 (2012)


I would also like to thank my sweet friend, Regan Rippelmeyer, for helping me count dashes and chart them by specific use in her spare time in the fall of 2017.

One comment

  1. I was amidst reading “Emma” and finally gave up wondering about the dashes that would have been, in our current rules for fiction writing, considered either wrong or misplaced and looked up answers as to why Jane Austen included a plethora of dashes in her works. To my surprise, there is a whole lot more in her unpublished ones!

    This was a most insightful article. My question was most satisfactorily answered, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning more of her works that I have not heard before. Your efforts are not in vain!

    As an admirer of Jane Austen’s works, I appreciate learning more of her original voice. I concluded, before reaching your conclusion, that Jane must have included so many dashes in her dialogues as to display the manner in which her characters are talking — and I was correct! If we do look at it that way, her heavy usage of dashes makes more sense; and, as a writer myself, I just realised that I may have a similar style, though less implemented in my casual writing. I like to use dashes, especially when my characters are in distress or are wracked with nerves. I found no problem in doing so, and to learn that one of my favourite authors did this more often than myself to endeavour displaying more colour in her characters, I am all the more seriously pleased.

    This was of much help and insight! Thank you for sharing your efforts with us! And I believe I would return here again sometime soon to further understand other information — the amount of numbers muddled my brain! 😂

    Once again — thank you!


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