When to Use a Dash

by admin on March 29, 2011

One of the most overused and misused elements of punctuation is the dash. When to use a dash is something that many writers struggle with. Add to that the fact that many writers don’t know that there are actually three kinds of dashes — the em dash, the en dash, and the hyphen. Using these correctly and in the right context will signal to those reading your document, whether it’s an academic paper, manuscript, resume, or any other important work, that you know your punctuation rules and are a confident writer.

The em dash is the longest of the dashes. It is used to separate clauses. While many writers use two hyphens to make an em dash, some programs often convert those to an en dash instead, so it’s sometimes necessary to go to your symbols file on the tool bar and paste in the em dash.

The em dash can be used instead of commas when a clause needs more emphasis. For instance:
The snowplows weren’t going to come — this Jerry knew in his heart — until he was done shoveling the driveway.

It can also be used to separate elements in a series, so there isn’t a lot of comma confusion, and often in the same instance one would use a colon:

He had posters of all his favorite teams on his wall — the Red Sox, the Patriots, and the Bruins.
The text will tell you When to use a dash. It’s when a clause needs more than a comma, but is not a separate sentence.

But keep in mind that the em dash should be used sparingly. A paper or story peppered with em dashes is less readable, as is any document that is littered with a lot of extraneous punctuation.

It’s also important that if a dash opens a clause and the sentence continues after that clause, that clause should also close with an em dash and not a comma.

For instance, the sentence about poor Jerry and the snowplows should not be:

The snowplows weren’t going to come — and Jerry knew this in his heart, until he was done with the shoveling.

The en dash should be the less frequently used dash, but is often mistakenly used in place of am em dash. The en dash, which is between an em dash and a hyphen and frequently converts from two typed hyphens in computers programs, is used in very specific cases.

One of the rules for when to use an en dash is between equally weighted words in a compound adjective. For instance: The Cassius Clay–Sonny Liston fight.

It is also used in ranges: I worked at the factory from 2003–2007.

The en dash is frequently used in academic papers in citations and references to note a range of page numbers. (pp. 203–207).

In none of these cases should a hyphen be used. The hyphen is the shortest dash and appears on your keyboard next to the 0 when the shift key isn’t used.

Knowing When to use a Dash, and which dash to use when one is needed, can be frustrating for a writer, particularly when there are so many other elements to consider.

That’s where a professional editor can help out. Professional editors, like the ones at FirstEditing.com, know When to use a Dash. They not only know whether an em dash or en dash is appropriate, but can also determine if the dash is needed at all. If you are confounded as to When to use a Dash, it may be time to consider having your academic paper, website content, resume, or any other document, looked at by a professional editor.

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