How to Use a Dash

After an independent clause or a parenthetical comment, a word or phrase is set off with the dash (—) punctuation mark (words, phrases, or clauses that interrupt a sentence). Contrary to popular belief, the dash (—) is longer than the hyphen (-). “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White explains that a dash is a stronger signal of separation than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.

The em dash, also known as the “long dash,” according to Oxford Online Dictionaries, and the en dash, which has no other name but is in between the hyphen and em dash in length, are the two sorts of dashes that exist and each has a distinct purpose. The en dash and the em dash were given their names because their widths are roughly similar to a capital N and an uppercase M, respectively.


The Middle English word darshan, which likely sprang from the Middle French verb dancier, meaning “to urge ahead,” is where Merriam-Webster claims the word “dash” originates. A dash’s present meaning is “to break,” which is a good description of what it does in grammar.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the dash, a “horizontal line used as a punctuation mark,” first emerged in writing and printing in the 1550s. However, the dash had specialized uses by the late 1800s. The em dash is commonly employed in specific works as a replacement for the comma or the colon and is deemed especially useful in rhapsodic literature, where interrupted sentences regularly occur, according to Thomas MacKellar, who wrote “The American Printer: A Manual of Typography” in 1885.

MacKellar listed numerous particular uses for the dash, such as

  • An indication of repetition in product catalogs where denotes ditto.
  • In book catalogs, it was used in place of author names.
  • In place of the words to and until, as shown in chap. xvi. 13–17.

Today, an en dash, which denotes a range, would be the last application.

The En Dash

The press service explains how other styles utilize the shorter dash, even if the Associated Press does not. En dashes are required in certain other styles to denote ranges of dates, times, or page numbers, as well as with some compound modifiers. For instance:

  • He had  9-5 job.
  • She is at work from 8 am-5 pm.
  • The event will run from March 15-31.

Hold the Alt key while typing 0150 on a Windows-based computer’s keyboard to dash. When using a Macintosh-based computer, hold the Option key while pressing the Minus key [-]. According to the American Psychological Association, you should use the en dash for the following: (test–retest, male–female, and the Chicago–London flight).

  • Page ranges (cited as “Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 718-729”).
  • Additional ranges (16–30 kHz).

The Modern Languages Association, according to Angela Gibson, writing for the MLA Style Center, utilizes an en dash when a single compound adjective is a proper noun, as in:

  • Pre-Industrial Revolution city.

She points out that when a compound in the predicate position contains a proper noun, the MLA additionally requires an en dash:

  • The audience adored Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.

The Em Dash

Em dashes are used by The AP, who also uses them, and they are used as follows:

  • To indicate a sudden transformation.
  • To initiate a phrase’s internal sequence.
  • Before author or composer credit in certain forms.
  • Following datelines.
  • To begin lists.

Other styles, such as MLA and APA, remove the spaces on each side of an em dash, although AP style demands them. Holding down the Alt key while typing 0151 creates an em dash on a keyboard on a Windows-based computer. Techwalla advises holding down Shift and Option on a Macintosh-based machine while pressing the Minus key [-]. Alternatively, you may hit the Hyphen key twice while pressing Space.

An em dash may be used in sentences in one of two ways:

Following a standalone clause, in his book “My Paris,” author Saul gives the following example of how to use an em dash after an independent clause:

“Life is like playing the violin while delivering a performance” — observed Samuel Butler.

“That — friends, is true knowledge.”

Words and phrases to jargon: The following quotation demonstrates how writers have successfully inserted a parenthetical idea or statement using em dashes:

“My first memories of money are of copper Lincoln cents— pale zinc-coated steel for a year in the war.” A Sense of Change by John Updike, The New Yorker, April 26, 1999

Thoughts on the Dash

The dash has generated an exceptional amount of discussion among authors, grammarians, and punctuation specialists for such a small punctuation mark. In “The Complete Plain Words,” a style, grammar, and punctuation reference book, Ernest Gowers assert that the dash is alluring. It tempts the author to employ it as a master of all punctuation, saving him the hassle of selecting the proper stop. On the other hand, some people have backed the dash: “The dash is more appealing than the semicolon because it is less formal, improves the tone of discourse, and has rather subtle consequences. People mostly use it because they know it cannot be misused.”

“Shoots, Eats, and Leaves” by Lyndon Truss

Other authors vehemently object to using the mark: “As you may have seen, the dash has the negative effect of discouraging genuinely effective writing. It also messes up the flow of a phrase, which may be its worst offense. Don’t you find it irritating when a writer interjects a partially finished idea into the middle of another one? You may tell me if you do, and I won’t take it personally.” —Norene Malone, “The Case Against the Em Dash, Please Hear Me Out.” 24 May 2011 Slate.

Therefore, make sure you are employing the en dash and em dash for the appropriate purposes and according to the guidelines mentioned, the next time you look through your arsenal of punctuation marks and find them ready to be used. Consider if your parenthetical statement will enhance the reader’s understanding of your text or confuse them. If the latter is the case, either modify the phrase to eliminate the dreaded dash or put the dashes back in your punctuation tool bag and use a comma, colon, or semicolon instead.

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