Dashes – How to Use Them in Sentences

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Dashes-Definition

Dashes are used frequently in writing for various uses. Like other punctuation marks, they are grammatical aids that make documents easier to understand. They draw the readers’ attention to the different parts of a text to improve the breakdown of ideas throughout the document.1

Dashes – In a Nutshell

  • A dash can be used in writing to show additional information, specify definitions and tones, and highlight missing information.
  • Dashes can be placed in different positions within a sentence, i.e., the beginning, middle, or end.
  • They can be used in place of commas, semicolons and parentheses where applicable. However, once you use dashes, avoid introducing these punctuation marks.

Definition: Dashes

Dashes are little horizontal lines that float mid-line in a text. A dash is visually similar to an underscore (_), but underscores are placed at the bottom of the line. A dash is used to separate a group of words, like commas, to break down the text into two parts. They can be used to mark additional information in a sentence, for example:2

Example:

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

Although dashes 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. A dash is similar to a hyphen, but a hyphen is shorter and is used to space words.3

Example:

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

Dashes: Em Dash vs. En Dash

There are two styles of the dash; the em dash and the en dash.

The em dash ()

The em dash is approximately as long as the letter m and is longer than the en dash. Em dashes often highlight extra information that is not important to comprehend the sentence. For this function, parentheses 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 em dash 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.4

Examples:

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 at 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.

Ways to put dashes in your 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 problems had wiped out half the memory.

To introduce a brief list within a sentence

Example:

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

To define a word

Example:

Leverage — use borrowed capital for (an investment), 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.5

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 dash is commonly used to alert a reader to extra information in a sentence. A hyphen 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 creates redundancy in your punctuation.

Sources

1 Harward, Barnaby. “Common Mistakes in Business English.” HarwardCommunications. September 07, 2017. https://blog.harwardcommunications.com/2017/09/07/how-to-use-hyphens-and-dashes/.

2 Nordquist, Richard. “How to Use a Dash.” Thought Co.. May 30, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-dash-in-punctuation-1690416.

3 S, Danielle. “The Em Dash, The En Dash, and The Hyphen: You’re Doing it Wrong.” Writers Access. Accessed September 01, 2022, https://www.writeraccess.com/blog/em-dash-en-dash-hyphen/.

4 The Punctuation Guide. “En dash.” Accessed September 01, 2022. https://www.thepunctuationguide.com/en-dash.html.

5 Moxley, Joseph M. “Dashes.” Writing Commons Accessed September 01, 2022, https://writingcommons.org/section/grammar/mechanics/punctuation/dashes/.