The Use of the Dash

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Types of dashes

Dashes are slightly longer than hyphens, and there are three types: the figures dash, the en dash and em dash. The figure dash is a typographical character that is found most often in phone numbers; it is not available in a general word processors. In its place, a hyphen is usually used. The en and em dashes are the most common; their names originate from the width of each. The en dash is the width of the letter “n,” the em dash is the wide of the letter “m.” The en dash is usually used to show a range of numbers or dates. The em dash is used in a variety of situations, usually to show emphasis or provide clarity, but it is used to show an open-ended date range as well. See each dash displayed in the below examples:

Figure dash: 800-888-8888 (Used in a phone number, the figure dash is created by using a
hyphen to represent it in a word processor.)

En dash: 1998 – 2006 (To create the en dash, add a space after the last number, use a hyphen and add another space, as most word processers automatically create the en dash.)

Em dash: Sarah Waters 1986— (The dash shows the birth year of Sarah Waters, but not her date of death if she is still living.)

To create the em dash in most word processors, use two hyphens with no spaces after the last word before them followed by what you want to insert and two hyphens, with no spaces between the hyphens and the words. Once you continue typing, the em dash is automatically created. The focus of each of the situations that follow involve the use of the em dash, which is simply referred to as dash.

Formal versus informal writing

Dashes are best suited to informal writing. In more formal writing, alternate punctuation is usually used instead. It is okay to use dashes in more formal pieces, but make sure to use them sparingly. Whether a written piece if formal or informal often depends on both you as the writer and your audience.

To replace colons or parentheses for emphasis

If you want to place more emphasis on something that follows a colon or is contained within parenthesis, you can replace either with dashes. In a more formal piece, the colons or parentheses are used instead.

Colon: Attendees must cover their own lodging costs—hotel room, food and beverages.

Parentheses: The three couples—two who were married and one who was engaged—started group therapy.

Before explanations

When you provide an explanation, dashes are used to replace or mean “namely,” “that is” or “in other words.” In a more formal piece, offsetting commas are used.

Example: The woman—the one with long, red hair—looked graceful dancing the waltz.

For breaks in thought

When you want to notate an abrupt break in thought or the flow of the sentence, a dash can offset it at the end of the sentence, or offsetting dashes can offset it in the middle of a sentence.

Example 1: Yes, I want to go out for dinner—as long as I choose the restaurant.

Example 2wh: The car salesman—not the dealership—benefits the most from a higher price tag, as the salesman receives a larger commission.

In lists with commas

When a list or series contains commas within it, and the list is non-essential, dashes can replace the commas. This addition information is also called an appositive. If an appositive does not contain commas, use offsetting commas instead.

Example 1: My boyfriend had everything—sleeping gear, cooking supplies and outdoor games—packed for the camping trip (list is not essential to retain meaning).

Example 2: Sleeping gear, cooking supplies and outdoor games are always included in their list of camping supplies (list is essential to retain meaning).

To rename or identify a noun

Appositives rename or provide details about a noun; when an appositive is used, two dashes are sometimes used to offset it within a sentence. In more formal writing, use offsetting commas instead.

Example: John F. Kennedy—one of the most loved American presidents—was well-known for his oratory skills and charisma.

Avoiding overuse

With anything that is used for a specific reason, dashes are at risk of overuse. If you use them too frequently, the emphasis you are trying to create with one is diminished. If you find yourself using too any dashes, replace them with other punctuation unless you are trying to create an emphasis or provide clarity. This is especially true in formal writing, where you should choose commas, colons or parentheses in most situations. Dashes often interrupt the flow of information, and in formal writing, the interruption usually hurts rather than helps your words.