Dashes come in three sizes:
- the em dash (the width of a non-proportional “m”), which connects explanations or action tags with dialogue.
- the en dash (the width of a non-proportional “n”), which connects ranges of time or numbers,
- the hyphen (or minus sign), which connects syllables or words
Generally, only the hyphen and the longer dash appear in fiction.
Em dash (—, a dash the width the proportional letter “m”)
Em dashes have specific uses for interruptions, but they can also replace parentheses or commas.
The long dash is generally not separated from the word in front or behind by a space, although newspapers following the AP Stylebook insert spaces.
- “I didn’t mean—or maybe I did.” (Self-interruption)
- “I didn’t mean—” She stopped. He wasn’t listening. (Self-interruption)
- “How can anyone—never mind, we’ll figure it out.” (Self-interruption)
- “How can anyone—” He shot her a silencing look. (Interruption by an action of another)
- “I didn’t mean—”
- “Then why did you say what you said?” (Interruption by another)
- “How can anyone—”
- “Don’t ask. It doesn’t matter.” (Interruption by another
- “I’m not sure”—he hung his head—”what I think.”
- “I don’t”—she stomped her foot—”care what you think. Get out of here”—she pointed to the door—”now!”
- Nearly thirty countries have flags with these three colors: red, white, and blue.
- Nearly thirty countries have flags with these three colors—red, white, and blue.
- She pulled out her grocery list, the shortest ever: milk and bread.
- She pulled out her grocery list, the shortest ever—milk and bread.
- He had only one desire for his last meal: prime rib.
- He had only one desire for his last meal—prime rib.
The em dash, when adding non-essential information, implies more emphasis, perhaps because it is not used as often. While these may seem to be interchangeable, care should be given in the use of dashes. Do not overuse. Consistency is important.
- That horse—the one I bought yesterday—just broke my arm.
- That horse (the one I bought yesterday) just broke my arm.
- That horse, the one I bought yesterday, just broke my arm.
- (All three sentences convey the same information.)
- The butcher, one of the three men in the tub, went out to sea.
- The butcher—one of the three men in the tub—went out to sea.
- The butcher (one of the three men in the tub) went out to sea.
- (“one of the three men in the tub” adds to the information about the butcher; the phrase does not define him.)
- Angus cows, all of which are black, are hard to tell apart.
- Angus cows—all of which are black—are hard to tell apart.
- Angus cows (all of which are black) are hard to tell apart.
- (“all of which are black” describes Angus cows without defining them.)
Phrases that offer examples
If introduced by a dash, a closing dash should follow the rest of the introduced phrase, unless it ends the sentence.
- He wrote, “I really have little use for dashes—that is, except when I’m writing.”
- “Dashes can be useful at times—for instance,” he added, “when someone stammers when they are talking.”
Creating an em dash
- Step 1: Type a word.
- Step 2: Type two hyphens one after the other.
- Step 3: Type the next word.
- Step 4: Now type the space and keep typing.
- something—who knows
- Unfortunately, WordPress does not follow MS Word, so create an em dash in Word, copy it, and paste it into your blog.
Other punctuation (Chicago style)
According to the Chicago style, the only punctuation allowed before an em dash is a question mark or an exclamation mark. A period is allowed only if it is part of an abbreviation.
En dash (–, a dash the width the proportional letter “n”)
Ranges of time, numbers
- The conference is scheduled for July 8–12.
- That was the longest assignment I ever didn’t read—pages 52–175.
- (em dash follows “read” to introduce a list, en dash between the page numbers)
Creating an en dash
Whichever keyboard you use, no “en dash” key exists.
MS Word will let you create one.
Mac: press “Option” and the hyphen at the same time.
Windows: not so easy. Click on the “Insert” tab. To the far right, click on “Symbol” and at the bottom of the list, “More Symbols.” Under the “Special Characters” tab, select the second item in the list, “En Dash,” click “Insert,” and “Close.”
Or you can create a shortcut key from the “Special Characters” tab. At the bottom of the box, click on “Shortcut Key…” With the cursor in “Press new shortcut key:” in the middle of the box, press “ctrl” and “shift” and “N.” In the lower left, click on “Assign.” Close. Now whenever you need an en dash, hold “ctrl” and “shift” and type “N.” The dash will appear appropriately without spaces on either side.
The hyphen is a busy little character, although not as busy as the comma.
- She put up a sign for her missing two-year-old cat.
- A short-term solution may not work well in the long run.
In case of doubt, check a current dictionary. Some nouns that used to be hyphenated are now put together as a single word.
- Cindy often goes to the movie with her sister-in-law.
- Her great-grandfather found her missing checkbook.
Verbs that have become phrases
If it is acceptable to end a sentence with a verb and its adverb or preposition, it has become a “phrasal verb.” Hyphenate it when using it as a noun.
- The gas blow-up destroyed several houses.
- Five prisoners escaped during the break-out.
- I’m tired of his constant put-downs.
Hyphenated adjectives in a list
- Sixteen- and seventeen-year-old students may only take the GED® examination with special permission.
- One-third- and one-half-pound burgers are too big for me!
Numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine (except multiples of ten)
- One hundred twenty-two years and counting, her grandmother was the oldest living person, but that was thirty years ago.
- He wrote out the check for seventy-four dollars even. He forgot the eighty-five cents.
- He missed cutting the board to the right length by three-fourths of an inch.
- Which wrench do you need, the five-eighths or the eleven-sixteenths?
- He could only eat a half of the hamburger.
Ranges of number, time, distances (AP Style)
The Chicago style uses an en dash for a range of times or numbers.
- Regular working hours are 8-5 Monday-Friday.
- They must have spent 1,000-1,500 euros on their vacation.
Prefix with a capitalized noun, an adjective, or a date
- Pre-Christmas sales begin now in October!
- They only sold post-1990 books.
- The Pan-American Highway runs from Alaska to Argentina.
- We often go camping in mid-September for my birthday.
- Her favorite history of the United States was pre-1776.
- My post-2000 grandchildren do not know how to “dial” a telephone.
- pre-emergence pesticide
- recover = to retrieve
- To recover from the crash, she spent three days in the hospital.
- She called the police to recover her stolen lawn mower.
- re-cover = to put on a new cover
- The couch was tattered and torn, so she bought new material to re-cover it.
In the days of the typewriter, the word would be split between syllables. Any sentence containing the words “supercalifragilistic” or “antidisestablishmentarianism” is likely to leave a long space at the end of the line. A hyphen between syllables solves the problem.
However, this use of hyphens is no longer as popular as computers use a proportional font.
Examples of syllables:
- supervisor (su-per-vi-sor)
- processor (pro-ces-sor)
- (break words between double consonants)
- establishment (e-stab-lish-ment)
- interactive (in-ter-ac-tive)
Examples in sentences:
The child did not like caterpillars until she found out they became butter-
flies. Then she thought they were beautiful.
Benjamin stared at the words in his new reader. They were incom-
prehensible to the fourth-grader.
These sentences may not split in the same place on your device. Pretend they are only two lines, the first one ending with “butter-” and the second ending at “incom-.”