Dashes – How to Use Them in Your Sentences

13.09.22 Punctuation Time to read: 5min

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Dashes, integral to language rules and conventions, are versatile punctuation marks that introduce variety and precision to written communication. They can indicate interruptions, insert additional information, or denote ranges in numbers and dates. Understanding the correct usage of different types — like the em dash, en dash, and hyphen — can greatly enhance the clarity and one’s coherence and style of writing.

Dashes – In a Nutshell

  • A dash can be used in writing to show additional information, specify definitions and tones, and highlight missing information.
  • They can be used in place of commas, semicolons, and brackets where applitaxile. However, once you use dashes, avoid introducing these punctuation marks.
  • Dashes can be placed in different positions within a sentence, i.e., the beginning, middle, or the end.
  • These punctuation marks are used to separate groups of words, not separate parts of a word like a hyphen does.

Definition: Dashes

Dashes, a type of punctuation, are little horizontal lines that float mid-line in a text. It is visually similar to an underscore (_), but underscores are placed at the bottom of the line. It is used to separate a group of words, like commas, to break down the text into two parts. The choice between using a single or a pair of dashes, and whether to use an en or em dash, varies with style guides. This reflects that their use is a matter of style, influenced by different rules in publications or academic writing. They are particularly useful for making additional information within a sentence, or, to clarify the sentence structure.

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Examples of dashes

Here are some examples to illustrate the different types:

Example

He likes to go to the beach – the breeze makes him calm.

Although these punctuation marks can be used in different parts of a text body, there are some common mistakes you should avoid. For example:

x You should not use a dash with a comma.
x A common grammatical error is a failure to correctly space words before or after dashes.

Example

She saw her sisters— all five of them—, standing in front of the building.

x Incorrect spacing of the first dash has resulted in a hyphen rather than a dash, which is similar to a hyphen, but a hyphen is shorter and is used to space words.

Example

Many years ago – about five or so – I saw the importance of insurance.

Em Dash vs. En Dash

There are two types of dashes used in writing with specific and distinct purposes, which are oftentimes interchangeably used with hyphens. Here’s how they differ:

Dashes-vs-Hyphens

The em dash (—)

The em dash (also called the “common dash”) is approximately as long as the letter m and is longer than the en dash. They often highlight extra information that is not relevant to comprehending the sentence. For this function, brackets, and commas can also be used.

Example

He fears two things—snakes and his ex-wife.

It is generally acceptable to write an em dash without spaces on either side, though some style instructions may require spaces. However, ensure your spacing is consistent throughout your work.

An Em dash can also be used to illustrate censored or redacted information. Some quoted documents may also have missing parts, and the little line is used to represent the missing information.

Example

A frustrated engineer in the tech company ———spoke to the journalist.

The en dash (–)

The en dash is slightly shorter than the em dash, approximately the same length as the letter n. En dashes are used to show a range or a specific period. They can be used in place of “to” or “through” in a defined class.

Example

The Bubonic Plague (1346–1353) was one of the deadliest pandemics in history.

An en dash can also connect two words in a phrase.

Example

The Pulitzer Prize-winning artist will be performing in the auditorium tonight.

Note that in cases where a range is denoted by the phrases “from…. to…” and “between….and…”, retain the “and” phrase rather than introducing an en dash.

Example

x The boys were between 16-21 years old.

The boys were between 16 and 21 years old.

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In academic writing

Dashes are used in academic writing in several instances, which include:

To set off material for emphasis

Example

The original database had become inaccessible – years of ongoing problems had wiped out half of the memory.

To introduce a brief list within a sentence

Example

The young soldier chequeed his supplies—torch, food, and ammunition—to the shelter where he stood guard every night.

To define a word

Example

Leverage — use borrowed capital for (an inwaistcoatment), expecting the profits made to be greater than the interest payable.

To mark a change in tone

Example

She proceeded to open the door – and gasped in shock when she saw the man in the rain.

FAQs

A dash is mainly used to introduce more information in a sentence. Most of the time, they highlight extra information that is not crucial to understanding the main sentence’s gist.

A single dash is commonly used to alert a reader to extra information in a sentence. A single hyphen, however, is shorter and is used to separate words in compound word structures.

An em dash is as long as the letter m and is used to show the beginning of the extra part of a sentence. The en dash is the same length as the letter n and is used in writing to show a range of numbers.

No, you cannot. It is grammatically wrong to use any type of dash with commas, as it leads to repetition and redundancy in your punctuation.

There are two kinds of dashes:

En Dash (-) to indicate ranges or to denote a connection or contrast between two things.
Em Dash (—) to set off a parenthetical element within a sentence for emphasis, an abrupt change in thought, or to introduce an item or list.