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Where to use dashes

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Where to use dashes
May 30, 2019 Anniversary Wishes 2 comments

Whether you choose to use em dashes or en dashes, pick one and use it consistently. A common mistake is using both forms in the same.

An em dash, or long dash, is used:

  • in pairs, to mark off information or ideas that are not essential to an understanding of the rest of the sentence:

Thousands of children—like the girl in this photograph—have been left homeless.

My son—where has he gone?—would like to meet you.

  • to show other kinds of break in a sentence where a comma, semicolon, or colon would be traditionally used:

One thing’s for sure—he doesn’t want to face the truth.

Things have changed a lot in the last year—mainly for the better.

Note that there is no space added on either side of an em dash.

Em dashes are especially common in informal writing, such as personal emails or blogs, but it’s best to use them sparingly when you are writing formally.

 

Back toPunctuation.

You may also be interested in:

Hyphen

Semicolon

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If your keyboard can't produce a dash, you will have to resort to a hyphen as a stand-in. In British usage, we use only a single hyphen to represent a dash - like .

Hyphens and Dashes

where to use dashes

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Punctuation—Hyphens and Dashes

Summary:

These resources provide guidelines for using punctuation in your writing.

Hyphens (-) are used to connect two or more words (and numbers) into a single concept, especially for building adjectives. Likewise, some married women use hyphens to combine their maiden name with their spouse’s name:

  • There are fewer Italian-American communities these days.
  • The family’s money-saving measures have been helping them to build their savings.
  • She has stopped buying 2-liter bottles and has started buying 0.5-liter bottles, instead.
  • I had a conversation with Mrs. Skinner-Kcrycek this morning.

They are also a necessary component of the numbers 21 through 99:

  • Before the exam, Tomas studied for thirty-three hours without sleep.

Although they can be used as substitutes for the word “to” when discussing value ranges and scores in games, it is better to use the word in formal writing situations than the punctuation:

  • The high temperature will be 87-89 degrees.

Hyphens are also used in syllable breaks when words cannot fit completely on a line, and must be continued on the following line. With word processors and the ability to automatically move whole words, though, this has become less common:

  • This opinion is based on sales figures for the past few months, and con-
  • versations I have had with customers.

Dashes (—) can be used to indicate an interruption, particularly in transcribed speech:
The chemistry student began to say, “An organic solvent will only work with—” when her cell phone rang.

They can also be used as a substitute for “it is, “they are,” or similar expressions. In this way they function like colons, but are not used for lists of multiple items, and are used less frequently in formal writing situations:

  • There was only one person suited to the job—Mr. Lee.

They can also be used as substitutes for parentheses:

  • Mr. Lee is suited to the job—he has more experience than everybody else in the department—but he has been having some difficulties at home recently, and would probably not be available.

Note that dashes are double the length of hyphens. When you type two hyphens together (--), most word processors automatically combine them into a single dash.
The Purdue OWL maintains a number of resources on punctuation you can visit to learn more:

model thank you letter
Correct business email format
heart felt thank you
Business compliments examples
letter of appreciation for retirement
Thank you for stopping by letter
prepositions in writing
Sample letter for appreciation of service

Welcome to the Purdue OWL

where to use dashes

Dashes can be used to separate extra information or to mark a break in a sentence. They appear in some of the same places as commas, colons, semicolons, and parentheses. However, they are generally considered more informal than these punctuation marks, so should be used sparingly and selectively in academic writing.

The two main types of dashes are the em dash (—) and the en dash (–). Make sure not to confuse dashes and hyphens (-).

Using dashes

Dashes can be used in pairs to mark off additional information or an aside that is not essential to the understanding of the rest of the sentence. Here they function similarly to parentheses or a pair of commas.

Dark, leafy greens—such as spinach, kale, and chard—are an important part of a healthy diet.

Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

A dash can also be used to mark a break in a sentence in place of a semicolon or colon. In this context, dashes are often used for emphasis or to signal a change in tone.

There was no arguing with her—she was set in her opinion.

En dash vs em dash

As their names suggest, the em dash is approximately the length of the letter m, and the en dash the length of the letter n. Both are longer than the hyphen (-).

Em dash

The em dash is used for setting off information or marking a break in a sentence. No space should be used on either side of an em dash.

In the interrogation room, the detective questioned the suspect—who sat shifting nervously—on his whereabouts the night of the incident.

En dash

Strictly speaking, the en dash has a different function, but you will often see it used in the same way as an em dash. In this context, the en dash takes a space on either side.

In the interrogation room, the detective questioned the suspect – who sat shifting nervously – on his whereabouts the night of the incident.

This usage of the en dash is especially common in British English, while the em dash is more prevalent in American English. Style guides differ on this point, but your main focus should be on consistency.

En dash to indicate range

The en dash is also used to indicate a range of numbers or a span of time. You can read it as representing “to” or “through”.

The company had a successful 2018–2019 fiscal year.

This job demands frequent evening and weekend work in addition to regular 9:00am–5:00pm hours.

The document was heavily redacted, with pages 46–52 removed altogether.

Consistency with dashes

Whether you choose to use em dashes or en dashes, pick one and use it consistently. A common mistake is using both forms in the same sentence or text, or spacing the punctuation incorrectly.

  • Jeff Bezos–who is the founder, chairman, CEO, and president of Amazon — is one of the richest people in the world.
  • Jeff Bezos—who is the founder, chairman, CEO, and president of Amazon—is one of the richest people in the world.
  • Jeff Bezos – who is the founder, chairman, CEO, and president of Amazon – is one of the richest people in the world.

Dashes vs hyphens

Hyphens are used to link words together. They should not be used in place of dashes.

  • The door slammed shut behind him – and that was the last I saw of him.
  • The door slammed shut behind him—and that was the last I saw of him.
  • The door slammed shut behind him – and that was the last I saw of him.

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When people talk about using dashes, they are almost The most common way to use the em dash is to.

Dashes in Grammar: En and Em Dashes and More

where to use dashes

Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes: When to Use Them and How to Type Them

The hyphen, the em dash, and the en dash are all horizontal marks of varying lengths. Each functions quite differently from the others. Below are definitions of each, explanations for when to use them, and instructions for typing them on both PCs and Macs.

The Hyphen

The hyphen is the shortest of the three and is used most commonly to combine words (making compounds such as “well-being” and “advanced-level,” for example) and to separate numbers that are not inclusive (phone numbers and Social Security numbers, for example).

On computer keyboards, the hyphen appears on the bottom half of the key located on the top row between the “0” and the equals mark (=).


Most people use the hyphen when they need a minus sign in mathematical equations. Some argue that the actual minus sign sits lower than the hyphen, but at least in Microsoft Word, inserting the mathematical minus sign from the symbols list renders the same mark as using the hyphen on the keyboard.

In many instances, correct hyphenation can be a complicated issue. Elsewhere on this site, we discuss the use of hyphens to create compound words and hyphenated adjectives. Here, however, our focus is on the two kinds of dashes.

The Em Dash

The em dash is the mark most of us picture when we hear the term dash. It is significantly longer than the hyphen.

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 phrase, or a clause (as we’ve done here)—or they can be used alone to detach one end of a sentence from the main body.

Dashes are particularly useful in a sentence that is long and complex or in one that contains a number of commas, as in this example:

  • We bought pencils, rulers, notebook paper, pens, and folders—all of which were on sale, of course—for our clients to use in the courtroom.

When we confuse the em dash with the hyphen, we make a sentence virtually impossible to read. If we had used a hyphen in place of each dash two sentences ago, it would seem as though we had hyphenated two pairs of words in the sentence: “parentheses-that” and “clause-or,” neither of which makes any sense.

Em Dashes, Parentheses, or Commas?

A good rule of thumb is to reserve em dashes for those places where the comma simply doesn’t provide a strong enough break. If a comma (or a pair of them) works, use it.

Parentheses tend to downplay an idea; they suggest that the information in them is helpful but not necessary. Em dashes draw attention to the information they enclose or set apart. Typically the writer is telling the reader that the information being set off by em dashes is important.

The En Dash

The en dash is slightly longer than the hyphen but not as long as the em dash. (It is, in fact, the width of a typesetter’s letter “N,” whereas the em dash is the width of the letter “M”—thus their names.) The en dash means, quite simply, “through.” We use it most commonly to indicate inclusive dates and numbers: July 9–August 17; pp. 37–59.

Many people were not even aware of the distinction between the en dash and the em dash until the advent of word processors, when software programs enabled us to use marks of punctuation that once had been available only to professional printers.

Important: Spacing with Hyphens and Dashes

When using the hyphen, the en dash, or the em dash, most style books advocate putting space neither before nor after them. One exception is, of course, when the hyphen is used as a minus sign. The other exception is with a hanging hyphen (see, for example, the word “nineteenth” in the phrase “nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature”). By definition, a hanging hyphen will have a space after it but not before it.

Typing the En Dash and Em Dash on PCs and Macs

Computer keyboards lack individual keys for either of the dashes. (The symbol above the hyphen is an underline, not a dash.) Before word processing, we had to make do by typing two hyphens. Now we have options.

Note that not all keyboards around the world are the same. We have heard from our readers in countries outside the U.S. that the following shortcuts don’t apply to their keyboards.  That said, here are guidelines for typing on many keyboards:

  • On both PCs and Macs, two hyphens (typed with no space before or after either of them) will convert to an em dash—the full-length one that most of us think of when we hear the word “dash.”
  • We can also choose en and em dashes from a menu of symbols that do not appear on the keyboard. In Microsoft Word, for example, we can pull down the “Insert” window, click on “Symbol,” and go to the “normal text” window. The en and em dashes appear on the bottom row.
  • In any software program that handles text, the em dash can be typed on an enhanced keyboard as Alt + 0151—that is, hold down the “alternate” key and, using the numerical pad on the right side of the keyboard, type the numbers 0151. The en dash can be typed as Alt + 0150.
  • Mac users also have another option: For an em dash, simultaneously press the shift, option, and minus keys. For an en dash, press the option and minus keys.

British (and Canadian) Usage vs. American

British/Canadian style guides seem wildly inconsistent on the issue of the em and en dash. Some say to use the en dash instead of the em dash, while others go so far as to advocate using the hyphen, advice that would lead to confusion, as we have noted above. Our British and Canadian readers—and, indeed, any English-speaking reader outside the U.S.—should consult the style manual to which they default.

The esteemed Oxford University Pressstyle guide explains how to use both the em and en dashes, so we can assume that at least this authoritative source advocates using both.

Let’s Continue the Conversation

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TEST YOURSELF

Can you spot any errors in the use of the hyphen, the en dash, or the em dash in the following sentences?

  1. The instructions were written on pages 33-47.
  2. The conference will be held June 30 – July 2 on Hilton Head Island.
  3. Juan had tried begging, bribing, and even demanding cooperation from his staff-all of whom were swamped with other work-before he gave up and wrote the report himself.
  4. No one – not even the president – realized the company would have to dissolve so quickly.

ANSWERS

  1. The instructions were written on pages 33–47. [Use an en dash, not a hyphen, to indicate inclusive page numbers.]
  2. The conference will be held June 30–July 2 on Hilton Head Island. [Use an en dash, not a hyphen, to indicate inclusive dates. Do not space before or after dashes.]
  3. Juan tried begging, bribing, and even demanding cooperation from his staff—all of whom were swamped with other work—before he gave up and wrote the report himself. [Use em dashes, not hyphens, to indicate a break in thought.]
  4. No one—not even the president—realized the company would have to dissolve so quickly. [Use em dashes, not hyphens, to show a break in thought. Do not space before or after dashes.]

© 2002 Get It Write. Revised 2019.

WATCH THE VIDEO ON THEME: How to use Hyphen ( - ) correctly? - English Grammar / writing lesson

Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes: When to Use Them and How to Type Them. The hyphen, the em dash, and the en dash are all horizontal marks of.

where to use dashes
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