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The Rules for Using DashesDashes are used in the following five ways:
- To show in ranges for numbers or dates (e.g., 1 May–13 June)
- To divide a compound adjective with two equal parts (e.g., the India–Pakistan issue)
- To extend sentences just like colons, semicolons, and three dots (e.g., I need 1 thing – money.)
- To offset additional information just like commas and brackets (e.g., Jane – the youngest sister – left early.)
- To credit a quotation (e.g., "When I die, I will be forgotten." – Anon)
Table of Contents
- Five Ways to Use Dashes
- Dashes Are Usually Optional
- The Types of Dash
- Use of Dashes Explained in Detail
- (1) Using Dashes with Ranges (e.g., Times and Dates)
- (2) Using Dashes in Compound Adjectives with Equal Parts
- (3) Using Dashes to Extend Sentences
- (4) Using Dashes as Parentheses
- (5) Using Dashes to Credit Quotations
- Why Dashes Are Important
- Printable Test
Five Ways to Use DashesHere is more detail of the five ways dashes are used:
(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).
- It depends — as my mother used to say — on trust. (In this example, the dashes have been used commas or parentheses, i.e., brackets.)
(5) To credit a quotation.
- "Love is a serious mental disease." — Plato
Dashes Are Usually OptionalFor 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 DashThere 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:
|Name||Punctuation||How 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")|
Use of Dashes Explained in Detail
(1) Using Dashes with Ranges (e.g., Times and Dates)
- USSR existed 1922–1991.
- USSR existed between 1922 and 1991.
- USSR existed from 1922 to 1991.
- USSR existed 1922 to 1991.
- The project will be delivered January–June.
- I will visit 13 January–24 January
- I will visit 0800–0900.
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
- The India-Pakistan issue
- The NATO-Warsaw Pact agreement
(3) Using Dashes to Extend Sentences
- She demanded just one thing from her students: effort.
- She demanded just one thing from her students — effort.
- 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.")
- 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.)
- 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.
- Familiarity breeds contempt — and children. (Mark Twain) (The original is written with three dots to create a pause for effect.)
Read more about dashes to extend a sentence.
(4) Using Dashes as Parentheses
- 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)
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
- "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.)
- "Name the greatest of all inventors. Accident." — Mark Twain (1835–1910)
Be Consistent When Formatting DashesMost 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.
- Skip—a guard dog for Bonds Ltd in Bury—hospitalized two burglars before returning to eat the steaks they had thrown him.
- 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.)
(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.")
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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