A dash is an adaptable punctuation mark that can indicate parenthesis within a sentence and can be used instead of a bracket or a colon.
The primary use of a dash in English is to separate or connect two independent clauses. A clause is a phrase made up of a subject and a verb, and modifying words and dashes can create a ‘bridge’ between them. Therefore, using a dash in writing is usually considered informal.
A dash can sometimes be confused with another punctuation, the hyphen. However, they’re quite different: A hyphen is slightly shorter than a dash and is used to combine two words.
There are two main types of the dash – the ‘ em‘ dash and the ‘en’ dash. Let’s take a closer look at these two kinds and find out when to use a dash in a sentence.
What are the two types of the dash?
As we mentioned, there are two different types of the dash in English. And while they might look alike, it’s essential to be able to tell them apart and how when to use a dash in a sentence for both of them:
The Em Dash (—)
The em dash is the longer of the two dashes (—) and can be referred to as the ‘double dash.’ It can be used when a writer wants to emphasize additional information.
Dashes may be used in pairs to separate the words from the surrounding text.
- ‘The man was dressed—rather plainly — in a black suit.’
- ‘Your exam results will depend—as my mum says —on how much hard work you put in.’
- ‘Use double dashes— if they are appropriate for the type of sentence —in moderation.’
Looking at the above examples, you can see how the sentences would still make sense without including the clause between the dashes. However, the inclusion of em dashes represents how the writer interjects with their idea or opinion.
Em dashes are often used in fiction, magazines, and other informal types of writing to create an abrupt shift in the narrative or the writer’s train of thought. It makes them a fun technique for pupils to use in creative writing, especially if they’re writing from a character’s point of view.
Em dashes are used for a few other reasons. But first, let’s look at when to use a dash in a sentence.
- The Dramatic ‘Em’ Dash:
Another example of when to use a dash in a sentence for the ‘em’ dash is if we want to create a dramatic effect. Using the ‘dramatic dash’ means that only one dash must be included in the parenthesis at the end of the sentence.
A dash found by itself can be used to separate something dramatic or show a contrast between the two sentences.
The idea of the ‘dramatic dash’ is to shock or surprise the reader at the very end of the sentence.
‘It was a long wait—perhaps the longest of his life.’
‘Lilies are my favorite flowers—after tulips, of course.’
‘I enjoy playing on my trampoline—I can jump higher than my sister.’
2) The Interrupting ‘Em’ Dash
The em dash can also be used when writing dialogue to show that someone has been interrupted while talking. Again, this is an excellent way to make dialogue seem more realistic in writing.
‘I hate superhero films—‘
‘What?! Superhero movies are my favorite!’
It is an excellent example of when to use such as a dash in a sentence. The em dash is used to represent how the first speaker is being interrupted by the second. It makes them a helpful punctuation mark when conveying an argument or rapid back-and-forth dialogue between characters.
3) The Repeating ‘Em’ Dash
Dashes can also be used to show the repetition of a word or phrase for effect. Typically, repeating dashes indicate that someone is nervous or scared.
‘No – there’s no way – it can’t be…’
The En Dash (–)
Now that we’ve covered the em dash and know when to use it in a sentence let’s learn about its cousin: the en dash.
The en dash (–) is shorter than the em dash, and we use it for various reasons. Unlike the ‘em’ dash, we’re less likely to use the ‘en’ dash for literary and dramatic effect and more likely to connect words or phrases. Let’s explore a few uses of this type of dash:
1) To show time ranges:
We often use the en dash to show date or time ranges.
He worked at the business from 2008-2012.
I work between the hours of 9:00 am-5:30 pm.
2) To connect compound adjectives
Another example of when to use a dash in a sentence is if we want to connect compound adjectives. A compound adjective is an adjective that is created out of two separate words.
Some writers might use an en dash instead if we have an open compound (where a space separates the words) or a hyphenated compound (where a hyphen joins the combination).
Let’s take a look at an example:
She is an award–winning sportswoman.
3) To show a connection or divide:
Another instance of when to use a dash in a sentence is if we want to emphasize a connection, or a conflict, between two separate things. Let’s take a look at some examples:
There is a north-south football match happening today.
I am taking the London-Manchester train this morning.