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The dash is one of those punctuation marks that many people have seen throughout their lives but have probably given little thought about how it’s really supposed to be used. In fact, if you are reading this article right now, you probably have some questions about when and where to use the dash properly.
Whether you’re looking for tips on how to be a great writer or simply are going through all of the other punctuation marks out of curiosity, we’ve got you covered when it comes to the dash.
What is the Dash?
Before we go any farther, we should probably take a look at exactly what this little guy is. First and foremost, it is not a hyphen (“-“). Hyphens are used to create compound words and adjectives, as well as when a word runs from the end of one line to the beginning of the next.
On the other hand, a dash is used in several other settings, and it also looks different. There are actually two types of dashes, and both are very different in usage as well as appearance. The first and most common dash that is used is the en-dash. It is slightly longer than the hyphen and can is about the size of the letter N in width. You can see what it looks like in the example below:
“From 1901–1981, there are exactly 80 years.”
Don’t worry if you’re not quite sure why we used it there as opposed to a hyphen or the other dash. We will get to that in a minute.
The other type of dash is the em-dash. This dash is longer than the en-dash and is about the size of the letter M in width. This is how it might look in a sentence:
“Once the mayor collected all of the votes on the matter—a total of 385—he was then able to get a feel for what everyone wanted.”
Here’s what the two look like right next to each other:
This is a good question as most keyboards will not have the actual en- or em-dash as part of their keyboard layout. Sure, they will have a hyphen or minus-sign (-), as well as an underscore (_), but neither of those is what we want.
What we can do is use something called alt-codes.
What is an alt code? Well, the short history lesson is that IBM developed a way to type characters on screen that aren’t on your keyboard by holding down the Alt key (either one is fine), and then entering in a numeric code on the keypad (outlined in red below). Depending on the numbers pressed, you get a different character.
The alt code for the en-dash is alt+0150.
Try it out. Hold down your alt key; press 0,1,5,0; then, let go of the alt key. You should get the en-dash immediately.
The alt code for the em-dash is: alt+0151
Note: You have to use the keypad. Not the numbers running across the top of your keyboard. Also, if it’s still not showing up, toggle your Num Lock key.
Many word processors will automatically format for each type of dash, depending on how you type. We can’t go over all of the software, obviously, but we can show an easy shortcut for one of the most popular, Microsoft Word (and this feature is replicated in other suites, too).
For the en-dash, do the following:
Type your sentence up to the en-dash and add a space
Hit the hyphen key (-)
Add another space
The em-dash is quite simple as well. Try it out by:
Type your sentence up to the point where you want the em-dash, but do NOT add a space
Hit the hyphen key twice (-)
Keep typing (with NO space between the two hyphens and the next word)
Also, many word processors, including Word, will have a “symbols” tab, button, ribbon, or dropdown. You should be able to pull down the correct punctuation mark by using those.
The En-Dash (alt+0150)
The truth of the matter is that the En-Dash is the easiest to understand and use, and as such, it is the least likely to cause errors and/or confusion. It is also important to realize that the en-dash and the em-dash play completely different roles when it comes to writing. That said, let’s get into the specifics on what this little guy does.
When the en-dash is used, it’s often done to demonstrate or show a range of numbers. These numbers can be for anything that’s being measured. It could be weight, speed, time, age, quantity, etc. Most people simply substitute the word “to” or “through” when reading a text with the en-dash in place. Let’s look at a few examples to drive the point home:
“When shipping presents during the holidays, it’s usually a good idea to ship them at least 3–5 days in advance of when you normally would to ensure that they will arrive on time.”
“Skydivers typically fall at speeds around 120–130 mph, but some can reach speeds near 200 mph or even higher depending on body position and intent.”
“When it comes to demographics, we have found that females in the age range of 24–36 are the most likely to purchase this product and recommend it to their friends.”
“These diapers are best used for infants who weigh 12–18 pounds.”
Those are all fairly straightforward, and throughout your life, you’ve no doubt simply been reading the en-dash without much thought to it. We see it all over the place in print and online, so it’s very natural to have a firm grasp on where to use the en-dash in these sorts of circumstances.
However, there is another use of the en-dash that many people aren’t aware of, and that’s forming a connection between words. This use is, in fact, similar to how we might use a hyphen to form compound words and adjectives, but there’s a twist here: we use the en-dash to connect words when we’ve already got hyphens thrown into the mix.
That is to say, if there are no hyphens and we want to connect words, we use a hyphen. Take this as an example, pre-hyphen:
“The bacon wrapped corndogs were especially delicious.”
To make that sentence clearer, we’d simply stick a hyphen in so it looks like:
“The bacon-wrapped corndogs were especially delicious.”
Now then, if you need to connected multiple hyphenated words together, we don’t use another hyphen. We use the en-dash. Doing so, we could end up with something like:
“Many people believe that the pro-gun–anti-gun argument will never be solved.”
The key here to remember we are joining compound words together, and we don’t want it to look like we are just stringing multiple words. For example:
“The ultra-hard-red-hot poker” is not as clear as “The ultra-hard–red-hot poker.”
Think of it like how you might use a semicolon to help break up lists in a sentence clearly where commas are already being used.
“I was rated in the following categories: art, novice; reading, competent; math, competent.”
That sums up how and where to use the en-dash. Let’s move on to the other.
Using the em-dash is either going to make your day or make you pull your hair out when it comes to what people say when you use it. Why? Well, because the em-dash is used to replace other punctuation marks, such as the comma and parenthesis, to either add emphasis to something or to help readability. There are some other cases, too, which we will discuss, but in regard to all of them, at the crux of the matter is the fact that style will play a huge role in when and where to use it.
In other words, your English teacher from high school may like it one way or another, while your English professor in undergrad says the opposite. And then let’s say you go to work at a publishing house, and depending on the style guide that house uses, you might end up with a different set of rules or a mashup of the ones you already follow.
That said, take a deep breath and realize that what we discuss will save your bacon the vast majority of the time. Just realize that there will be a difference of opinion from time to time.
Let’s get started.
Possibly the biggest use of the em-dash, as well as the easiest to understand, is using it to show emphasis on comments that could be done with commas. Before we delve into a few examples, note that a lot of times people will simply try and add em-dashes in place of commas, which is fine, but be warned that if you do, there will be extra stress (emphasis) on that phrase.
“And if the rumors of rumors were true—and so far, they certainly looked like they might be—the recently deceased had been involved in some questionably legal activities which demanded further investigation.”
As you can see, the phrase “and so far, they certainly looked like they might be” could have commas before and after it, and it would still read grammatically correct, but the use of the em-dash makes that little section stand out even more.
Much like substituting commas with em-dashes, you can also do the same for parentheses. There are tradeoffs for using either, so be sure you know what you’re getting into when you use them.
First off, parentheses are considered to be much more formal as well as less intrusive. Also, in many style guides, these are not interchangeable during certain times, such as when you are citing a source. For example, this would be accepted as a citation:
“The invention of this device has been dated back to 1392 AD (Doe & Smith, 2010).”
However, this would not:
“The invention of this device has been dated back to 1392 AD—Doe & Smith, 2010.”
You want to use them when the parentheses occur as a comment or remark. Also, whereas the use of the parentheses is formal and subtle, the em-dash is casual and attention-drawing. Compare the following two examples and see how each one feels a little different.
“Once buying all of the apples (12 in total), Mark went home.”
“Once buying all of the apples—12 in total—Mark went home.”
Another thing you can do with the em-dash is to use it in place of a full colon at the end of a sentence. Much like when substituting for parenthesis, you will want to do this when you are both being less formal in your writing, and you want to draw extra attention to whatever happens to be there.
“After a look, hard look, she could make out etchings—but etchings of what?”
Technically, in the above, you could use a colon, but the em-dash, as you can see, puts an extra emphasis on the last bit for the reader. In this case, it really makes them wonder what those etchings are.
Another common place for the em-dash to show up is when writing speech for characters, and you want to show an interruption or a cut off for another reason. This is used in contrast to the ellipses in speech when you are showing the trailing of a sentence where the speaker grows quiet and/or silent.
“All I said was—”
“Quiet!” Michael yelled, interrupting Susan.
The action here is clear. Susan was trying to explain something, but before she could finish, Michael interrupted.
The last thing to touch on is whether or not to use spaces before and after the dash. That is, do you write:
“He ran—on broken shoes—as fast as he could.”
“He ran — on broken shoes — as fast as he could.”
This, ultimately, is a style guide question. Most guides out there will say not to use a space before or after. However, most newspapers say you should.
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