Dashes

Dashes

A dash ( – or — ) is a punctuation mark typically used to create a break but, occasionally, a connection. For the most part, the dash does not have a unique role but is used as an alternative for another punctuation mark.

A dash can be inserted into a sentence as an alternative for:
  • A colon (e.g., It depends on one thing — trust.)
  • A semicolon (e.g., It depends on trust — it always has.)
  • A three dots (ellipses) used as a pause for effect (e.g., It needed — trust.)
  • Parenthetical punctuation such as brackets or commas (e.g., It depends — as my mother used to say — on trust.)
A dash can be used:
  • Between dates (e.g., World War II ran 1939–1945).
  • To credit a quotation. (e.g., "Love is a serious mental disease." — Plato)
  • With a compound adjective with two equal parts (e.g., The NATO–Warsaw Pact agreement)

More about Dashes

There are two kinds 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 a missed opportunity to show off that you know the difference between a hyphen and a dash. (NB: Some writers use two hyphens (--) to represent one dash to differentiate.)

Here's how to get an em dash and an en dash.
CharacterKey Strokes
em dash (—)Ctrl + Alt + minus (on the numeric pad)
en dash (–)Ctrl + minus (on the numeric pad)

Examples of Dashes Replacing Colons

A dash (em dash is most popular) can be used to replace a colon that introduces an appositive at the end of a sentence.
  • She demanded just one thing from her students: effort.
  • (An appositive renames something mentioned previously in the sentence. In this example, the appositive is effort. It renames one thing. This is covered in the entry on colons.)
Here's the same example with an em dash.
  • She demanded just one thing from her students — effort.
Here's 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. (Writer Mark Twain)
  • (The original quotation uses a colon.)

Examples of Dashes Replacing Semicolons

A dash (em dash is most popular) can be used to replace a semicolon (which itself replaced a full stop) used give a smoother transition between two sentences.
  • She demanded effort from her students. That's all she ever asked for.
  • (These are the original two sentences.)
  • She demanded effort from her students; that's all she ever asked for.
  • (A semicolon has been used to give a smoother transition between the sentences. This is covered in the entry on semicolons.)
Here's the same example with an em dash.
  • She demanded effort from her students — that's all she ever asked for.
Here's another example.
  • It's not the size of the dog in the fight — it's the size of the fight in the dog. (Mark Twain)
  • (The original quotation uses a full stop.)

Examples of Dashes Replacing Three Dots (Ellipsis)

A dash (em dash is most popular) can be used to replace three dots (called ellipses) used as a pause for effect.
  • As she prodded through the sludge, something caught her eye. It was the unblemished unmistakable sparkle of… the diamond on her grandmother's ring.
  • (Ellipsis can be used to create a pause for effect. This is covered more in the entry on ellipsis.)
Here's the same example with 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.
Here's another example.
  • Familiarity breeds contempt — and children. (Mark Twain)
  • (This quotation is often written with three dots.)

Examples of Dashes Replacing Parenthetical Punctuation (e.g., Brackets, Commas)

We're all familiar with putting explanations or afterthoughts in brackets (just like this). But, brackets are just one of the choices for inserting extra information into a sentence. You can also use commas or dashes.
  • Mark Jones (who has lived in our village for 20 years) is the world Scrabble champion and the national Cluedo champion.
  • (In this example, brackets have been used but commas could have been used too. This is covered more in the entry on parenthetical punctuation.)
Here's the same example with em dashes.
  • Mark Jones — who has lived in our village for 20 years — is the world Scrabble champion and the national Cluedo champion.
Here's another example.
  • I have never taken any exercise — except sleeping and resting — and I never intend to take any. (Mark Twain)
  • (The original quotation uses commas.)
You don't need to justify using dashes for parentheses, but just be aware that they can look a little stark.

Examples of Dashes between Dates

A dash (en dash is most popular) can be used between times and dates. (A dash will usually replace the words from…to or between…and.) Here are some common formats.
  • USSR existed between 1922 and 1991.
  • USSR existed from 1922 to 1991.
  • USSR existed 1922 to 1991.
Here's the same sentence written with an en dash.
  • USSR existed 1922-1991.
  • (Note that the word between or from is not used.)
Here are some more examples.
  • The project will be delivered January-June.
  • I will visit 13 January-24 January.
  • I will visit 0800-0900.

Examples of Dashes with Quotations

A dash (em dash is most popular) can be used to credit a quotation to someone.
  • "Name the greatest of all inventors. Accident." — Mark Twain (1835–1910)
  • (Note that it's an em dash before Mark Twain but an en dash between the dates.)

Examples of Dashes with Compound Adjectives with Two Equal Parts

A dash (en dash is most popular) can be used in a compound adjective with two equal elements.
  • India–Pakistan relations are defined by the violent partition of British India in 1947 and the Kashmir conflict.
  • The West German–Soviet dialogue thawed the chill in East–West relations and led to the Bonn–Moscow Treaty of 1970.
  • Dunning–Kruger effect: when your incompetency prevents you seeing your incompetency.

More about Dashes

When using a dash (en dash, em dash or a "cheaty" hyphen) mid-sentence, most people like to see a space either side, but using no spaces is a common convention too. Pick one and be consistent. Here are the options listed in order of popularity:
  • en dashes with spaces (e.g., Bill – aged 17 – won the cup.)
  • (This is the most popular because people use hyphens instead of en dashes.)
  • em dashes with spaces (e.g., Bill — aged 17 — won the cup.)
  • (This is a good option to show you know the difference between a hyphen and a dash.)
  • two hyphens with spaces (e.g., Bill -- aged 17 -- won the cup.)
  • (This is a good option to show you know the difference between a hyphen and a dash, but it also smacks of trying too hard.)
  • em dashes without spaces (e.g., Bill—aged 17—won the cup.)
  • (This is a possibility. It could be useful to keep your text on one line.)
  • en dashes without spaces (e.g., Bill–aged 17–won the cup.)
  • (This is a possibility too, but most would agree it's not a good look.)
With dates (e.g., June 1922–May 1923), the most common convention is no spaces either side of your en dash. But, the same rule applies — pick a convention and be consistent.

Why Should I Care about Dashes?

It's worth learning about dashes just to make use of their versality, but, if that's not enough, here are two more good reasons to include a little more "Ctrl Alt minus" action 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. Sentence 2 is simply the next idea.)
  • Take my advice — stay alive.
  • (Here, 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.)
Renaming? Sentence 1? Sentence 2? What's all that about? If you're unsure whether to use a semicolon or a colon when merging two sentences into one or extending a sentence, use a dash. It covers both roles.

Dashes are stark though, and a page full of dashes is not a good look. Also, using lots of dashes in these sentence-extending roles will do little to showcase your writing skills.

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 from the rest of the sentence. Even though dashes can look a little unwieldy, they're a good alternative for brackets when brackets might be too informal, and they're a good alternative for commas for a sentence that already contains lots of commas. The starkness of dashes will also give — and, excuse the gangsta rap — some emphasis to your parenthesis, blud.
  • 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.)

Key Points

  • If you're unsure whether to use a colon or a semicolon to merge two sentences into one, use a dash. Easy life.
  • If you need a parenthesis to stand out — I mean really stand out — replace your breezy brackets or confusing commas with daring dashes.
A list of cognitive biases with examples