What is a dash?
There are two similar but distinct punctuation marks called dashes: the en dash ( – ) and the em dash ( — ). In appearance, an en dash is slightly longer than a hyphen ( - ), approximately the width of a capital N, while an em dash is slightly longer than an en dash, approximately the width of a capital M (hence their names).
When we refer to dashes, we are usually referring to em dashes, as they are the more common punctuation mark of the two. However, it’s important to know the different ways that each mark is used.
En dashes (sometimes referred to as n-dashes or en rules) are the preferred punctuation to indicate a range or the result of a contest or vote, or to establish a connection or conflict between two people or things. (The en dash also has an optional use when forming certain compound words, which we’ll look at a little later.)
We do not use a space between the en dash and the two elements it is connecting.
Indicating a range of values
The most common use of the en dash is to connect two numbers, dates, or times to indicate a range that spans these figures. We can think of the en dash as representing the words to or through when it is used in this way. For example:
- “Please refer to pages 83–88 for more information.”
- “The clinic is open Monday–Friday.”
- “We need you to submit your expense report for January–March.”
- “The company had been a fixture in the community from 1998–2006.”
Note that when the items in the range contain multiple words, we place the en dash between the last word of the first element and the first word of the second element, as in:
- “I’ll be in the office 8:00 AM–4:00 PM this Friday.”
- “The November 2010–February 2011 sales figures were a bit lower than we had hoped.”
If the first part of the range includes an abbreviation marked with a period, the en dash appears directly alongside it—we still do not put a space between the two. For example:
- “Please be aware that we will be closed Thurs.–Mon.”
- “We’ll be staying with my in-laws from Apr.–Aug. while our house is renovated.”
Note that some style guides do not recommend using an en dash when a range is introduced by a word like from or between. In very formal or professional writing, consult your school’s or employer’s style guide; otherwise, it is largely a matter of personal preference.
Indicating a score
When we write the score of a competition, such as a sporting event or a vote, we use an en dash between the two numbers. Again, think of the en dash as standing in for the word to in this case. For example:
- “The home team beat their rivals 14–10 in the homecoming game.”
- “The board voted 5–4 to accept the proposal.”
- “The jury returned a guilty verdict with a 10–1 majority.”
Expressing a connection or conflict
We can also use an en dash when we want to express a direct connection between two people, things, or places. This is different from simply joining them as a compound modifier to describe the same noun (which we would use a hyphen for). This use can be a bit trickier to understand, so let’s look at some examples:
- “The president is trying to drum up support for the Mexico–U.S. trade deal.”
- “The Republican–Democrat divide on the issue has only widened in recent months.”
- “We will begin boarding the Denver–Chicago flight shortly.”
- “The England–Germany match will air at 5 PM, London time.”
Even though each pairing is modifying the noun or nouns that follow it (trade deal, divide, flight, match), the en dash in each is expressing an explicit connection between the two elements that a hyphen would not be able to demonstrate. If we were to use a hyphen instead of an en dash, it would combine the two elements in each pair into a single modifying element, thus confusing the meaning of each sentence. For instance, “Mexico-U.S. trade deal” suggests Mexico and the United States as a single entity, rather than two separate parties engaged in the same trade deal. If we want to preserve the intended meaning, we must use an en dash.
We sometimes use an en dash when referencing a technical element that appears elsewhere in the text (as in an appendix). For instance:
- “Table 1–C on page 239 gives a quick breakdown of all three options.”
- “Please refer to clause 4–D in Appendix C for more information.”
Forming certain compounds
While we typically only use hyphens to form compound words, some style guides recommend using an en dash instead if we are joining an existing compound (whether open or hyphenated) with another word. For example:
- “The New York State–led initiative is gaining traction across the country.”
- “A multiple–award-winning novelist, Ms. Jones currently lives in Portland, Oregon.”
- “My thesis focuses on post–Industrial Revolution economics.”
- “Daniel is doing quite well for himself, despite having only a pre–high school education.”
Either way, the use of en dashes rather than hyphens to form compounds is largely a matter of personal preference for writers; unless your school’s or employer’s in-house style guide provides specific guidelines, just use whichever form looks best to you and be consistent.
Hyphens vs. en dashes
Because they are so similar in appearance (and because there is no dedicated “en dash” button on a keyboard), many writers tend to simply use hyphens in place of en dashes in all cases for the sake of ease.
Let’s look at some of our examples from above, this time using hyphens instead of en dashes:
- “Please refer to pages 83-88 for more information.”
- “The home team beat their rivals 14-10 in the homecoming game.”
- “We will begin boarding the Denver-Chicago flight shortly.”
- “Table 1-C on page 239 gives a quick breakdown of all three options.”
- “A multiple-award-winning novelist, Ms. Jones currently lives in Portland, Oregon.”
While there is not much difference between the two forms in their appearance, the extra length of the en dash is usually preferred because it helps to specify its exact function within the context. If there are several hyphens that perform different functions in the same sentence or paragraph, the text may be difficult or confusing to read.
How to type an en dash
One of the main reasons writers end up using hyphens instead of en dashes in their writing is because a hyphen is faster and easier to type. In many cases, writers simply may not be aware how to type an en dash.
In most word processing software, you can create an en dash simply by typing space-hyphen-space. After you hit the spacebar the second time, the program will automatically convert the hyphen into an en dash.
However, as we’ve seen above, we generally should not put spaces around an en dash. To create one manually on a computer running Windows, hold the left Alt button on your keyboard and type 0150 on the number pad (with Num Lock enabled). If you are using a Mac computer, hold Option and hit the hyphen button to create an en dash.
Em dashes (also known as m-dashes or em rules) are primarily used to indicate parenthetical information. In this way, they act as more emphatic alternatives to commas and parentheses. While parentheses and commas are used to include parenthetical information more naturally and subtly in a sentence, a dash creates a more forceful break in the text that serves to emphasize and highlight such information.
In place of commas
In addition to many other functions, commas are often used to enclose parenthetical information, such as absolute phrases, appositives, relative clauses, and interjections. It is an understated punctuation mark that does not draw the reader’s attention away from the rest of the sentence, instead weaving the parenthetical statement into the natural flow of the sentence. If we want to emphasize the information, though, we can instead use em dashes, which break the flow of the sentence and force the reader to pay closer attention. (Em dashes are also useful if the parenthetical statement contains internal commas that might cause confusion.)
Let’s look at different types of parenthetical writing and examine when it is—or is not—appropriate to use an em dash in place of a comma.
An absolute phrase (sometimes known as an absolute construction) is a grammatically independent group of words (usually, but not always, a noun phrase and a past or present participle) that adds a parenthetical commentary on the rest of the sentence.
Absolute phrases can appear at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence. For the most part, we would use a comma with absolute phrases that appear at the beginning or end of a sentence, because an em dash would interrupt the flow of the sentence too dramatically (and might cause confusion as a result).
But for absolute phrases that appear in the middle of a sentence, em dashes can sometimes be useful to add forceful emphasis to the parenthetical statement. However, we must be careful not to use em dashes when they might make the sentence awkward or confusing to read.
- “The test finished, Jason heaved a sigh of relief.”
- “The test finished—Jason heaved a sigh of relief.” (em dash is not appropriate)
- “Jennifer walked slowly and thoughtfully out the door, her head turning for a last look at home.”
- “Jennifer walked slowly and thoughtfully out the door—her head turning for a last look at home.” (em dash is not appropriate)
- “Jennifer—her head turning for a last look at home—walked slowly and thoughtfully out the door.” (dashes are acceptable)
- “I hope, God willing, to get into Harvard next year.”
- “I hope—God willing—to get into Harvard next year.” (dashes are acceptable)
If you are in doubt as to whether dashes will be appropriate to use with an absolute phrase, it is safer just to use commas.
An appositive is a proper noun or a noun phrase that serves to describe or rename another noun (or pronoun). Appositives can either be restrictive, meaning they are essential to the meaning of the sentence, or non-restrictive, meaning they are parenthetical and thus nonessential to the meaning of the sentence. Only non-restrictive appositives can be set apart by commas or em dashes.
Like absolute phrases, appositives can appear anywhere in a sentence. While we would normally only substitute commas with em dashes for appositives appearing in the middle of a sentence, we can use em dashes for appositives at the end of a sentence if we want to emphasize the added information. For example:
- “The senator, a vocal critic of the president’s policies, said she is planning a motion to defeat his latest tax-reform bill.”
- “The senator—a vocal critic of the president’s policies—said she is planning a motion to defeat his latest tax-reform bill.”
- “Last night we watched Funny Girl, my favorite comedy of all time!”
- “Last night we watched Funny Girl—my favorite comedy of all time!”
- “A true classic, this book inspired a generation of young readers.”
- “A true classic—this book inspired a generation of young readers.” (an em dash is not appropriate at the beginning of the sentence)
Relative clauses (also known as adjective clauses or adjectival clauses) are dependent clauses that provide descriptive information about a noun or noun phrase. Relative clauses are introduced by either a relative pronoun (who, whom, whose, which, and that) or a relative adverb (where, when, and why).
Like appositives, relative clauses provide information that is either essential (restrictive) or nonessential (non-restrictive) to the completeness of the sentence; only non-restrictive relative clauses are set apart by commas or em dashes. For example:
- “The woman down the street, whose children are the same age as ours, invited us over for dinner next week.”
- “The woman down the street—whose children are the same age as ours—invited us over for dinner next week.”
- “Samantha, whom I’ve asked to be my bridesmaid, is getting married next year.”
- “Samantha—whom I’ve asked to be my bridesmaid—is getting married next year.”
- “Funny Girl, which is my favorite comedy of all time, is on TV tomorrow night.”
- “Funny Girl—which is my favorite comedy of all time—is on TV tomorrow night.”
- “The principal scheduled the meeting for mid-July, when most members of staff will be on vacation.”
- “The principal scheduled the meeting for mid-July—when most members of staff will be on vacation.”
- “The book that I read for class was really interesting.”
- “The book—that I read for class—was really interesting.” (Incorrect; we cannot use an em dash with a restrictive relative clause.)
An interjection, also known as an exclamation, is a word, phrase, or sound used to convey an emotion such as surprise, excitement, happiness, or anger. Interjections can stand alone as minor sentences, punctuated with a period, exclamation point, or question mark.
However, since interjections are not “proper” sentences, some writers prefer to attach them to a complete sentence using a comma or, if more emphasis is desired, an em dash. (Ultimately, it is up to preference, but note that this use of the em dash is very informal.)
- “Ooh, what a beautiful dress!”
- “Ooh—what a beautiful dress!”
- “Brr, it’s freezing in here.”
- “Brr—it’s freezing in here.”
- “Oh my gosh, did I tell you what Jonathan did last week?”
- “Oh my gosh—did I tell you what Jonathan did last week?”
Other parenthetical information
We can also use other phrases or clauses parenthetically to provide supporting information or commentary on the rest of the sentence. Again, how we set these apart from the rest of the text depends on the level of emphasis we want to add to them. In some cases, an em dash is actually preferable to a comma. For example:
- “Find me something to dig with, like a shovel or spade, so I can plant these flowers.”
- “Find me something to dig with—like a shovel or spade—so I can plant these flowers.”
- “However, the rules, if we choose to follow them at all, are not always consistent.”
- “However, the rules—if we choose to follow them at all—are not always consistent.”
- “The popular song is a great example of poor grammar, because its lyrics are all wrong!”
- “The popular song is a great example of poor grammar—because its lyrics are all wrong!”
- “Many fundamental aspects of living on one’s own, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, are things for which many young adults are completely unprepared.”
- “Many fundamental aspects of living on one’s own—cooking, cleaning, doing laundry—are things for which many young adults are completely unprepared.” (Dashes are preferable here because having so many commas can be confusing to read.)
Note that in each of the examples above, we could have used parentheses instead of commas or em dashes to indicate the parenthetical information.
In place of parentheses
Parentheses always travel in pairs of two, no matter where they appear in a sentence. Because they are self-contained, there is generally no restriction as to what information can be included within them, so long as it is grammatically independent of the rest of the sentence.
Like commas, parentheses can often be replaced by em dashes in a sentence if we want (or ought) to draw more attention to the information within them. Just be aware that em dashes are considered much less formal than parentheses, so they should be avoided when writing professional or academic material.
While we always use two parentheses, we only use one em dash if it is used at the beginning or end of a sentence. Additionally, a set of parentheses will operate in conjunction with surrounding commas, while em dashes will replace the commas altogether.
Let’s look at some examples:
- “I know that my friend Stephen (the poor dear!) has found living on his own very difficult.”
- “I know that my friend Stephen—the poor dear!—has found living on his own very difficult.”
- “As part of the centenary commemorations for the sinking of the RMS Lusitania (May 7, 1915), Irish President Michael Higgins participated in a wreath-laying ceremony in County Cork.”
- “As part of the centenary commemorations for the sinking of the RMS Lusitania—May 7, 1915—Irish President Michael Higgins participated in a wreath-laying ceremony in County Cork.”
- “Knowing how difficult it is to look after just one child, I’ll never grasp how my mother managed, considering how many children (nine in all) she raised more or less on her own.”
- “Knowing how difficult it is to look after just one child, I’ll never grasp how my mother managed, considering how many children—nine in all—she raised more or less on her own.”
Note that em dashes should not be substituted for parentheses in more technical, specialized uses (such as enclosing numbers or letters in a list, area codes of telephone numbers, or a person’s birth year). For more information on these types of uses, see the section on Parentheses.
In place of colons
In less formal writing, we can often substitute an em dash for a colon if we want to quickly indicate or emphasize a list or clarifying information. Just remember that we can only use a colon after an independent clause—that is, one that can stand on its own as a complete sentence—and we must apply the same rule if we are using an em dash instead.
- “In my opinion, the perfect sandwich has only three things: ham, cheese, and mayonnaise.”
- “In my opinion, the perfect sandwich has only three things—ham, cheese, and mayonnaise.”
- “There are several reasons to switch to online banking: faster access to your accounts, instant loan approvals, and a lower impact on the environment.”
- “There are several reasons to switch to online banking—faster access to your accounts, instant loan approvals, and a lower impact on the environment.”
- “As far as I’m concerned, there is only one true muscle car: the original Ford Mustang.”
- “As far as I’m concerned, there is only one true muscle car—the original Ford Mustang.”
We sometimes capitalize the first word that follows a colon (see the article on Colons for more on this topic), but we should never do so after an em dash. For instance:
- “Remember: Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.”
- “Remember—keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.”
- “I will say only this: Don’t be distracted from your studies. Your education must come first and foremost.”
- “I will say only this—Don’t be distracted from your studies. Your education must come first and foremost.” (incorrect)
In place of semicolons in compound sentences
An em dash can also be used in place of a semicolon when joining two independent clauses to form a compound sentence. This can help achieve a less formal or stuffy tone, and it is also a useful way of adding emphasis to the sentence. For example:
- “I made the cake; my sister decorated it.”
- “I made the cake—my sister decorated it.” (emphasizes the contrast between the sisters’ roles)
- “We don’t eat meat; we’re vegetarians.”
- “We don’t eat meat—we’re vegetarians.” (emphasizes the reason they do not eat meat)
In addition to replacing other types of punctuation, the em dash can also be used in two specific technical ways: representing missing text and indicating an interruption in dialogue.
Occasionally, dashes can be used to represent words or parts of words that are omitted from a sentence. These can be intentional omissions, as for censorship purposes, or because the missing text is unknown. If only a part of a word is missing, we represent it with two em dashes in a row; if an entire word is omitted, it is represented with two or three em dashes (depending on the writer’s preference). Unlike in other uses for the em dash, other punctuation in the sentence (such as commas) will appear as usual.
- “I was speaking with B——, and he told me that he would be visiting C—— later this week.”
- “Long ago, in the city of P——, a young man named Alexey made a most troubling discovery.”
- “With the page torn, all I could read was, ‘Please, find a fr——.’ Who knows what it’s supposed to mean.”
- “My client, ———, has requested not to be referred to by name again during this inquest.”
We can also use the em dash to signify when someone has been interrupted while talking or thinking. We can use either a single or a double em dash to this effect; it’s entirely up to personal preference (just be sure to be consistent). For example:
- Speaker A: “As I was saying, I think we ne—”
- Speaker B: “Sorry to interrupt again, sir, but I’m still not clear on your last point.”
- Speaker A: Gosh, this is boring. I hope something interesting happens soon so I——
- Speaker B: “Thompson! Stop daydreaming and pay attention!”
Spacing around em dashes
Conventionally, we do not put spaces around em dashes. However, many writers (especially journalists and online writers) prefer to include a space on either side of a dash to aid readability. For example:
- “The victory — a first for the L.A. team — has led to celebrations throughout California.”
- “There is at least one thing the candidate has learned in recent months — discretion.”
Regardless of convention, whether or not to use spaces generally comes down to personal preference; just be sure to check whether the style guide of your school or employer specifically requires that they be included or omitted.
Substituting hyphens and en dashes
It is quite common to see writers use hyphens instead of em dashes, due to the speed and ease with which a hyphen can typed. However, this should be avoided, as having hyphens performing too many functions in a sentence can lead to some very confusing reading.
If you need to use a hyphen instead of a dash—for instance, if you are using a typewriter or the keyboard on a mobile device, and you are unable to form a true em dash—then you should use two hyphens in a row. (Do not just use a single hyphen, as it might look like you’re creating a compound word.) For example:
- “The senator--a vocal critic of the president’s policies--said she is planning a motion to defeat his latest tax-reform bill.”
- “In my opinion, there is only one true muscle car--the original Ford Mustang.”
- “I will say only this--don’t be distracted from your studies. Your education must come first and foremost.”
- “The victory--a first for the L.A. team--has led to celebrations throughout California.”
It’s also not uncommon to see an en dash used instead of an em dash, especially in published writing. Again, this is not the preferred mark according to the majority of style guides, but it is not necessarily incorrect. If en dashes are used, they should be surrounded by spaces to avoid making the words appear too close together. For instance:
- “The senator – a vocal critic of the president’s policies – said she is planning a motion to defeat his latest tax-reform bill.”
- “In my opinion, there is only one true muscle car – the original Ford Mustang.”
- “I will say only this – don’t be distracted from your studies. Your education must come first and foremost.”
- “The victory – a first for the L.A. team – has led to celebrations throughout California.”
How to type an em dash
In most word processing software, you can create an em dash simply by typing two hyphens in a row between two words (without hitting the spacebar in between). Once you hit the spacebar after the second word, the program will automatically convert the hyphens into a single em dash.
You can also manually create an em dash without relying on a word processor. If you are using a Windows-based computer, hold the left Alt button on your keyboard and type 0151 on the number pad (with Num Lock enabled). If you are using a Mac computer, hold Shift + Option and hit the hyphen button to create an em dash.
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