How to Use a Dash in an English Sentence. When you know how to use a dash correctly, it can be a handy piece of punctuation. The problem.
When people think of punctuation marks, it is usually the handy comma, the imperious colon, or the overly excited exclamation mark that comes to mind. The stodgy semicolon and sinuous question mark might get thrown into the mix, but rarely—if ever—will somebody mention a punctuation mark that, while omnipresent, often goes unnoticed. This is surprising considering that this punctuation mark is highly versatile and a favorite of skilled writers. It can add a spice—or a dash, if you will—to a sentence by adding emphasis to certain words and phrases.
I am talking about the em-dash, which looks like two hyphens connected into one long line. Depending on the sentence, the em-dash can have a similar function to parentheses, colons, commas, and even semicolons. But an em-dash is not the same as these other marks; it brings a different flavor to the sentence and adds a special emphasis that wasn’t there before.
To show how to wield this handy punctuation mark, I’ll start by comparing two sentences: one that contains an em-dash (or em-dashes) and one that contains another punctuation mark. I’ll begin with parentheses, then discuss commas, move on to a semicolon, and finally end with a colon.
Lastly, I’ll touch on how to avoid overusing or misusing the em-dash—which can become tempting once you learn its many uses.
So, let’s start with parentheses versus em-dash, by comparing two sentences.
Dennis took his car (a tiny, two-door Honda) on a weekend road trip.
Dennis stuffed his four best friends into his car—a tiny, two-door Honda—for a weekend road trip.
In the first sentence, the fact that he has a small Honda doesn’t seem that closely connected to the fact that he took a road trip. Since we don’t want to bring too much attention to this information, we keep this information in parentheses. But in the second sentence, the size of the Honda is relevant to the road trip. Now he is “stuffing” four other friends into this small car. We use em-dashes to add emphasis to the size of the car.
It’s also important that when you set off a phrase using em-dashes that you used one em-dash immediately after the noun the phrase is describing and one immediately after the phrase. Don’t replace the second em-dash (as some tend to) with a comma or semicolon.
Identifying how an em-dash is used and actually using one in your own writing are two different things, the latter being trickier. Here’s a good strategy to use when trying to decide whether to use em-dashes or parentheses in your writing: If you find yourself wanting to throw in a little extra information about a noun in a particular sentence and are not sure whether the parentheses or the em-dash is the way to go, read the sentence out loud. When you get to the information contained between the em-dashes, add a little bit of humph as you enunciate each word. Then replace the em-dashes with parentheses and reread the sentence without adding any emphasis to the phrase in parentheses. In theory, that’s how your readers will interpret the sentence in their own minds—more emphasis, or “humph,” with the em-dash, and less with parentheses.
For instance, let’s say you are writing about a young pianist who mastered the works of composers known for their challenging pieces. You might want to highlight those names. The em-dash allows you to do this.
Mastering the works of her favorite composers—Rachmaninoff, Brahms, and Chopin—took many diligent years of practice.
If it sounds odd adding special emphasis to the composers when reading the sentence aloud, then parentheses are better.
It is not always necessary to use a hyphenated word. Sentences can be rearranged to avoid the need for a hyphen. If the adverb and adjective come after the.
Punctuation marks: terribly powerful in the right hands. Punctuation marks are silent allies, and you can train yourself to exploit them as such. Punctuation marks do not just indicate sound patterns—they are symbols that clarify grammatical structure and sentence meaning. And, as I demonstrate in the writing of this paragraph, punctuation marks showcase your facility with the language. What follows are some basics about three of the most powerful and most commonly misused punctuation marks.
The semicolon is often misused in technical writing; in fact, it is often confused with the colon. Grammatically, the semicolon almost always functions as an equal sign; it says that the two parts being joined are relatively equal in their length and have the same grammatical structure. Also, the semicolon helps you to link two things whose interdependancy you wish to establish. The sentence parts on either side of the semicolon tend to "depend on each other" for complete meaning. Use the semicolon when you wish to create or emphasize a generally equal or even interdependent relationship between two things. Note the interdependent relationship of the two sentence parts linked by the semicolon in this example:
The sonde presently used is located in the center of the borehole; this location enables the engineer to reduce microphonics and standoff sensitivity.
Here, we see how the second half of the sentence helps to explain a key detail (the sonde location) of the first half. The semicolon, along with the repetition of the word "location," helps to draw our attention to the explanation.
The semicolon is also handy for linking a series of parallel items that could otherwise be confused with each other. One savvy student used the semicolon in a job description on her resume as follows:
As an engineering assistant, I had a variety of duties: participating in pressure ventilation surveys; drafting, surveying, and data compilation; acting as a company representative during a roof-bolt pull test.
The colon: well-loved but, oh, so misunderstood. The colon is not just used to introduce a list; it is far more flexible. The colon can be used after the first word of a sentence or just before the final word of a sentence. The colon can also be used to introduce a grammatically independent sentence. Thus, I call it the most powerful of punctuation marks.
The colon is like a sign on the highway, announcing that something important is coming. It acts as an arrow pointing forward, telling you to read on for important information. A common analogy used to explain the colon is that it acts like a flare in the road, signaling that something meaningful lies ahead.
Use the colon when you wish to provide pithy emphasis.
To address this problem, we must turn to one of the biologist’s most fundamental tools: the Petri dish.
Use the colon to introduce material that explains, amplifies, or summaries what has preceded it.
The Petri dish: one of the biologist’s most fundamental tools.
In low carbon steels, banding tends to affect two properties in particular: tensile ductility and yield strength.
The colon is also commonly used to present a list or series, which comes in handy when there is a lot of similar material to join:
A compost facility may not be located as follows: within 300 feet of an exceptional-value wetland; within 100 feet of a perennial stream; within 50 feet of a property line.
The dash—which is typically typed as two hyphens or as one long bar (available on your word processor’s "symbol" map)—functions almost as a colon does in that it adds to the preceding material, but with extra emphasis. Like a caesura (a timely pause) in music, a dash indicates a strong pause, then gives emphasis to material following the pause. In effect, a dash allows you to redefine what was just written, making it more explicit. You can also use a dash as it is used in the first sentence of this paragraph: to frame an interruptive or parenthetical-type comment that you do not want to de-emphasize.
Jill Emery confirms that Muslim populations have typically been ruled by non-Muslims—specifically Americans, Russians, Israelis, and the French.
The dissolution took 20 minutes—much longer than anticipated—but measurements were begun as soon as the process was completed.
Finally, the dash we typically use is technically called the "em dash," and it is significantly longer than the hyphen. There is also an "en dash"—whose length is between that of the hyphen and the em dash, and its best usage is to indicate inclusive dates and numbers:
July 6–September 17 pp. 48–56.
Like the em dash, the en dash is typically available on your word processor’s symbol map, or it may even be inserted automatically by your word processor when you type inclusive numbers or dates with a hyphen between them. When you type the hyphen, en dash, and em dash, no spaces should appear on either side of the punctuation mark.
There are two commandments about this misunderstood punctuation mark. First, hyphens must never be used interchangeably with dashes (see the Dashes section), which are noticeably longer. Second, there should not be spaces around hyphens.
Incorrect:300 - 325 people
Hyphens' main purpose is to glue words together. They notify the reader that two or more elements in a sentence are linked. Although there are rules and customs governing hyphens, there are also situations when writers must decide whether to add them for clarity.
Rule 1. Generally, hyphenate two or more words when they come before a noun they modify and act as a single idea. This is called a compound adjective.
an off-campus apartment
When a compound adjective follows a noun, a hyphen is usually not necessary.
Example:The apartment is off campus.
However, some established compound adjectives are always hyphenated. Double-check with a dictionary or online.
Example:The design is state-of-the-art.
Rule 2a. A hyphen is frequently required when forming original compound verbs for vivid writing, humor, or special situations.
The slacker video-gamed his way through life.
Queen Victoria throne-sat for six decades.
Rule 2b. When writing out new, original, or unusual compound nouns, writers should hyphenate whenever doing so avoids confusion.
I changed my diet and became a no-meater.
No-meater is too confusing without the hyphen.
The slacker was a video gamer.
Video gamer is clear without a hyphen, although some writers might prefer to hyphenate it.
Writers using familiar compound verbs and nouns should consult a dictionary or look online to decide if these verbs and nouns should be hyphenated.
Rule 3. An often overlooked rule for hyphens: The adverb very and adverbs ending in ly are not hyphenated.
Incorrect:the very-elegant watch
Incorrect:the finely-tuned watch
This rule applies only to adverbs. The following two examples are correct because the ly words are not adverbs:
Correct:the friendly-looking dog
Correct:a family-owned cafe
Rule 4. Hyphens are often used to tell the ages of people and things. A handy rule, whether writing about years, months, or any other period of time, is to use hyphens unless the period of time (years, months, weeks, days) is written in plural form:
We have a two-year-old child.
We have a two-year-old.
No hyphens:The child is two years old. (Because years is plural.)
Exception:The child is one year old. (Or day, week, month, etc.)
Note that when hyphens are involved in expressing ages, two hyphens are required. Many writers forget the second hyphen:
Incorrect:We have a two-year old child.
Without the second hyphen, the sentence is about an "old child."
Rule 5. Never hesitate to add a hyphen if it solves a possible problem. Following are two examples of well-advised hyphens:
Confusing: Springfield has little town charm.
With hyphen: Springfield has little-town charm.
Without the hyphen, the sentence seems to say that Springfield is a dreary place. With the hyphen, little-town becomes a compound adjective, making the writer's intention clear: Springfield is a charming small town.
Confusing: She had a concealed weapons permit.
With hyphen: She had a concealed-weapons permit.
With no hyphen, we can only guess: Was the weapons permit hidden from sight, or was it a permit for concealed weapons? The hyphen makes concealed-weapons a compound adjective, so the reader knows that the writer meant a permit for concealed weapons.
Rule 6. When using numbers, hyphenate spans or estimates of time, distance, or other quantities. Remember not to use spaces around hyphens.
Note: Most publishers use the slightly longer en dash instead of a hyphen in this situation.
Here is how to type an en dash: On a PC, hold down the ALT key and type 0150 on the numeric keypad located on the far right of the keyboard. On a Mac, hold down the Option key and type the minus sign located at the top of the keyboard.
Rule 7. Hyphenate all compound numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine.
one thousand two hundred twenty-one dollars
Rule 8a. Hyphenate all spelled-out fractions. But do not hyphenate fractions introduced with a or an.
More than one-third of registered voters oppose the measure.
More than a third of registered voters oppose the measure.
Rule 8b. When writing out numbers with fractions, hyphenate only the fractions unless the construction is a compound adjective.
Correct: The sign is five and one-half feet long.
Correct: A five-and-one-half-foot-long sign.
Incorrect: The sign is five-and-one-half feet long.
Rule 9a. Do not hyphenate proper nouns of more than one word when they are used as compound adjectives.
Incorrect: She is an Academy-Award nominee.
Correct: She is an Academy Award nominee.
Rule 9b. However, hyphenate most double last names.
Example:Sir Winthrop Heinz-Eakins will attend.
Rule 10. Many editors do not hyphenate certain well-known expressions. They believe that set phrases, because of their familiarity (e.g., high school, ice cream, twentieth century), can go before a noun without risk of confusing the reader.
a high school senior
an ice cream cone
a twentieth century throwback
However, other editors prefer hyphenating all compound modifiers, even those with low risk of ambiguity.
a high-school senior
an ice-cream cone
a twentieth-century throwback
Rule 11. When in doubt, look it up. Some familiar phrases may require hyphens. For instance, is a book up to date or up-to-date? Don't guess; have a dictionary close by, or look it up online.
A prefix (a, un, de, ab, sub, post, anti, etc.) is a letter or set of letters placed before a root word. The word prefix itself contains the prefix pre. Prefixes expand or change a word's meaning, sometimes radically: the prefixes a, un, and dis, for example, change words into their opposites (e.g., political, apolitical; friendly, unfriendly; honor, dishonor).
Rule 1. Hyphenate prefixes when they come before proper nouns or proper adjectives.
Rule 2. In describing family relations, great requires a hyphen, but grand becomes part of the word without a hyphen.
My grandson and my granduncle never met.
My great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War.
Do not hyphenate half brother or half sister.
Rule 3. For clarity, many writers hyphenate prefixes ending in a vowel when the root word begins with the same letter.
Rule 4. Hyphenate all words beginning with the prefixes self-, ex- (i.e., former), and all-.
Rule 5. Use a hyphen with the prefix re when omitting the hyphen would cause confusion with another word.
Will she recover from her illness?
I have re-covered the sofa twice.
Omitting the hyphen would cause confusion with recover.
I must re-press the shirt.
Omitting the hyphen would cause confusion with repress.
The stamps have been reissued.
A hyphen after re- is not needed because there is no confusion with another word.
Rule 6. Writers often hyphenate prefixes when they feel a word might be distracting or confusing without the hyphen.
With no hyphen we get deice, which might stump readers.
With no hyphen we get coworker, which could be distracting because it starts with cow.
A suffix (y, er, ism, able, etc.) is a letter or set of letters that follows a root word. Suffixes form new words or alter the original word to perform a different task. For example, the noun scandal can be made into the adjective scandalous by adding the suffix ous. It becomes the verb scandalize by adding the suffix ize.
Rule 1. Suffixes are not usually hyphenated. Some exceptions: -style, -elect, -free, -based.
Rule 2. For clarity, writers often hyphenate when the last letter in the root word is the same as the first letter in the suffix.
Rule 3. Use discretion—and sometimes a dictionary—before deciding to place a hyphen before a suffix. But do not hesitate to hyphenate a rare usage if it avoids confusion.
the annual dance-athon
an eel-esque sea creature
Although the preceding hyphens help clarify unusual terms, they are optional and might not be every writer's choice. Still, many readers would scratch their heads for a moment over danceathon and eelesque.
We use the em dash to create a strong break in the structure of a sentence. Dashes can be used in pairs like parentheses—that is, to enclose a word, or a.
You Look Dash-ing!
Lesson Topic: Using Dashes (—) in Writing
Take a look at this sentence:
Look at the two dashes (—). Is there anything else the writer could have used instead of the dashes? It is possible for the writer to have used commas (,) instead of the dashes. Since the writer could have used commas, why did she choose to use dashes? That's a great question!
This leads us to another question: What is a dash and when should we use it?
The definition of a dash is probably best summed up by the famous grammarian William Strunk Jr:
Unlike other forms of punctuation, the dash does not have one specific usage.
In normal circumstances, other punctuation marks (commas, colons, or parentheses) should be used. However, when you want a phrase or another part of the sentence to have extra emphasis, a dash may be used. Take a look at this sentence:
In this sentence, a colon has been used. The writing seems to be formal. In addition, the writing seems to NOT need any extra emphasis.
Look at the following sentence:
In this sentence, dashes are used because it seems informal and the clause inside the dashes needs some emphasis. The emphasis is added in order to show that Tony could do nothing in this situation. The writer could have used parentheses, but parentheses may have been too formal for this situation.
When you are not sure if you can use a dash in your writing, remember how William Strunk Jr. defines its usage:
Directions: Read the sentences. Put the green words in the blue sentence. Other words may need to be changed.
|main sentence||added information||answer|
|1||Julius Caesar's last spoken words were "Et tu Brute?"||this is according to Shakespeare|
|2||The first time I went skiing is when I met my husband.||during this time I also broke my leg|
|3||In order to ensure a pleasant camping trip, campers must bring various essential items.||those items are a lantern, a sleeping bag, food, water, and a flashlight|
|4||He was so smart that even encyclopedias couldn't teach him anything.||at least he thought he was smart|
|5||When Albert wasn't mean and nasty, he would just ignore you as if you didn't exist on the planet.||his meanness, though, was a rarity|
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I am talking about the em-dash, which looks like two hyphens connected into one long line. Depending on the sentence, the em-dash can have.