Using Dashes

by Craig Shrives

Using Dashes

Dashes have five uses:

(1) To show ranges (e.g., with times and dates).
  • World War II ran 1939–1945.
(2) To divide the equal parts of a two-part adjective.
  • The London–Paris flight is cancelled.
(3) To extend a sentence.
  • It depends on one thing — trust.
  • (In this example, the dash has been used like a colon.)
  • It depends on trust — it always has.
  • (Here, the dash has been used like a semicolon.)
  • It needed — trust.
  • (Here, the dash has been used like an ellipsis (three dots).)
(4) To mark a parenthesis (e.g., an afterthought or a clarification). (5) To credit a quotation.
  • "Love is a serious mental disease." — Plato

More about Dashes

Dashes Are Usually an Option, Not a Necessity

For the most part, the dash does not have a unique role in grammar. It is usually used as an alternative to another punctuation mark.

When used to extend a sentence, a dash can replace a semicolon (;), a colon (:), or three dots (...) used as a pause for effect.

When used as parentheses, dashes are alternatives to brackets or commas.

The Types of Dash

There are two types of dash: the em dash (—) and the en dash (–).

The em dash is the same length as the character "M" (uppercase), and the en dash is same length as the letter "n" (lowercase).

As dashes do not feature on a standard keyboard, lots of people use hyphens instead of dashes. That's not such a crime, but it's something of a missed opportunity to show off that you know the difference between a hyphen and a dash. Some writers like to use two hyphens (--) to represent one dash to differentiate.

Here are the four main dash-like characters ordered longest to shortest:
NamePunctuationHow To Get One
em dash Ctl + Alt + minus (on the numeric pad)
minus sign minus (on the numeric pad)
en dash Ctl + minus (on the numeric pad)
hyphen- - (the key to the right of "0")
The hyphen and the en dash are almost indistinguishable from each other when using normal size fonts.

More about Using Dashes

(1) Using Dashes with Ranges (e.g., Times and Dates)

dashes used with times and dates
A dash can be used between times and dates. (A dash will usually replace the words from...to or between...and.) For example:
  • USSR existed 1922–1991.
Note: This is an alternative to the following:
  • USSR existed between 1922 and 1991.
  • USSR existed from 1922 to 1991.
  • USSR existed 1922 to 1991.
Here are some more examples of using dashes with ranges.
  • The project will be delivered January–June.
  • I will visit 13 January–24 January
  • I will visit 0800–0900.
Using a dash in a range is particularly common in tables. For example:
TimeEvent
0800–0830Introduction
0830–0930Lesson 1
0930–1230Lessons 2–3

The Values in the Range Are Inclusive

When using dashes between ranges, the values are inclusive. For example:
  • The Great Fire of London took place 2–6 September 1666.
  • (As the values are inclusive, the fire lasted 5 days.)
Note: If you're a stickler for the rules, use an en dash between times and dates. You will get away with a hyphen. Do not use an em dash.

(2) Using Dashes in Compound Adjectives with Equal Parts

dashes in two-part adjectives
A dash can replace a hyphen in a compound adjective with two equal elements. For example:
  • The India-Pakistan issue
  • The NATO-Warsaw Pact agreement
Note: If you're a stickler for the rules, use an en dash in your adjective. You will get away with a hyphen. Do not use an em dash.

(3) Using Dashes to Extend Sentences

dashes to replace semicolons, colons, or ellipses
Using a dash to replace a colon

A dash can be used to replace a colon that offers more information about something previously mentioned in the sentence. For example:
  • She demanded just one thing from her students: effort.
  • She demanded just one thing from her students — effort.
In the two sentences above, the word "effort" is known as an appositive. An appositive renames something. Here, the appositive renames "one thing.") Here is another example:
  • It is by the fortune of God that we have three benefits — freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and the wisdom never to use either.
  • (Mark Twain's original quotation uses a colon. The appositive is "freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and the wisdom never to use either." It renames "three benefits.")
Using a dash to replace a semicolon

A dash can be used to replace a semicolon that replaces a period (full stop) to give a smoother transition between two sentences: For example:
  • She demanded effort from her students. That's all she ever asked for.
  • She demanded effort from her students; that's all she ever asked for.
  • (A semicolon gives a smoother transition between the sentences.)
  • She demanded effort from her students — that's all she ever asked for.
  • (Here, the semicolon has been replaced by an em dash.)
Using a dash to replace an ellipsis (i.e., three dots)

A dash can be used to replace three dots used as a pause for effect. For example:
  • As she prodded through the sludge, something caught her eye. It was the unblemished unmistakable sparkle of ... the diamond on her grandmother's ring.
  • As she prodded through the sludge, something caught her eye. It was the unblemished unmistakable sparkle of — the diamond on her grandmother's ring.
Here is another example:
  • Familiarity breeds contempt — and children. (Mark Twain)
  • (The original is written with three dots to create a pause for effect.)

Good News and Bad News

Good news! There are specific rules about when to use a semicolon, a colon, or three dots, so you have to know what you're doing if you choose one of them. One of the good things about a dash is that it can be used as a substitute for all three.

Bad news! Using dashes every single time is not a good look. It will also cut down on your options for expressing yourself and showcasing your grammar skills. Therefore, you must still learn how to use the others. (You could think of the dash as a get-out-of-jail-free card that you can use occasionally.)
Note: If you're a stickler for the rules, use an em dash to extend a sentence. You will get away with an en dash or a hyphen.

Read more about dashes to extend a sentence.

(4) Using Dashes as Parentheses

dashes used as parentheses (brackets)
We're all familiar with putting explanations or afterthoughts in brackets (just like this). But, brackets are just one of the choices you have for inserting extra information into a sentence. You can also use commas or dashes. For example:
  • Mark Jones (who has lived in our village for 20 years) is the world Scrabble champion and the national Bananagrams champion.
  • (brackets used)
  • Mark Jones — who has lived in our village for 20 years — is the world Scrabble champion and the national Bananagrams champion.
  • (dashes used)
  • Mark Jones, who has lived in our village for 20 years, is the world Scrabble champion and the national Bananagrams champion.
  • (commas used)
You don't need to justify using dashes for parentheses, but just be aware that they can look a little stark.

Note: If you're a stickler for the rules, use an em dash for parentheses. You will get away with en dashes or hyphens.

Read more about dashes for parentheses.

(5) Using Dashes to Credit Quotations

dashes used with quotations
You can use an em dash to credit a quote to someone. For example:
  • "There used to be a real me, but I had it surgically removed." — Peter Sellers (1925–1980)
  • (Note the em dash before Peter Sellers and the en dash between the dates.)
Here is another example:
  • "Name the greatest of all inventors. Accident." — Mark Twain (1835–1910)
Note: You should use an em dash when crediting a quotation. An en dash or hyphen looks wrong.

Be Consistent When Formatting Dashes

Most people like to see a dash (an en dash or an em dash) with a space before and after. For example:
  • Skip — a guard dog for Bonds Ltd in Bury — hospitalized two burglars before returning to eat the steaks they had thrown him.
However, it is possible to omit the spaces, especially with em dashes. For example:
  • Skip—a guard dog for Bonds Ltd in Bury—hospitalized two burglars before returning to eat the steaks they had thrown him.
The options are listed in order of popularity:
  • en dashes with spaces
    (e.g., Bill – aged 17 – won the cup.)
  • (Note: This is only the most popular because people use hyphens instead of en dashes.)
  • em dashes with spaces
    (e.g., Bill — aged 17 — won the cup.)
  • (Note: This is a good option to show you know the difference between a hyphen and a dash.)
  • em dashes without spaces
    (e.g., Bill—aged 17—won the cup.)
  • (Note: This is a possibility. It could be useful to keep the whole thing on one line when using a PC.)
  • en dashes without spaces
    (e.g., Bill–aged 17–won the cup.)
  • (Note: This is a possibility too.)
It's worth learning about dashes to make use of their versatility, but, if that's not enough, here are two more good reasons to include more dashes in your work.

(Reason 1) A dash will be safe if you're unsure whether to use a colon or a semicolon.

Look at these two examples:
  • Take my advice — I don't use it anyway.
  • (Here, the dash replaces a semicolon (;). A colon would be wrong because nothing in "sentence" 2 renames anything in "sentence" 1.)
  • Take my advice — stay alive.
  • (In this example, the dash replaces a colon (:). A semicolon would be wrong because "sentence" 2 renames my advice in "sentence" 1. In other words, "sentence" 2 is an appositive of "my advice.")
Appositive? Renaming? Sentences 1 and 2? It's all a bit confusing.

If you're unsure whether to use a semicolon or a colon, use a dash. It covers both roles. Dashes are stark though, and a page full of dashes is not a good look. Yes, dashes are safe, but they're a bit slapdash (pun intended).

(Reason 2) Dashes used as parenthetical punctuation are unmistakably clear.

When dashes are used to mark a parenthesis (an explanation or afterthought that you'd happily put between brackets or commas), they demarcate your parenthesis starkly. That could be a good thing to give your parenthesis some emphasis. But, dashes can look a little unwieldy. Nevertheless, they're a good alternative for brackets when brackets might be too informal and for commas when the sentence already has lots of commas. For example:
  • Last week, Dr. Mark Jones — a resident of Bexley since he graduated from Bexley Secondary School in 1990 — was crowned, for the second year running, the world Scrabble champion.
  • (In this example, the writer did not want to use brackets because they would seem too informal and did not want to use commas because there were too many other commas in the sentence.)

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See Also

Apostrophes Brackets Colons Commas Hyphens Semicolons Quotation Marks

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