University of Houston-Victoria

University College

Using Dashes Correctly

Author/Creation:  Paige  Ruschhaupt, July 2009.
Summary:  Discusses the three different types of dashes  (the em-dash, the en-dash, and  the 3-em  dash).
Learning Objectives: To describe  the difference  between  dashes  and  hyphens.  To identify when to use each of the three dashes  correctly. To describe  some of the  rhetorical functions of the em-dash.

 

When it comes to dashes  and  hyphens, many  people think that they are the same,  but  in fact dashes  are used within sentences (usually  to emphasize separation of ideas or lists),  while hyphens are used to connect compound words and some prefixes.  This  handout focuses on how to use dashes  correctly.  There are actually three  different types of dashes:   the em-dash, the en- dash,  and  the 3-em  dash.

The  em-dash can be used to replace  parentheses, colons,  and  commas.  Generally, using  the em- dash  makes  the writing style more informal—as if you were writing to an old friend.  Create  an em dash  by typing two hyphens without spaces between the hyphens and no spaces before or after  the hyphens.  Em-dashes are not generally  used in formal  documents.

The  en-dash is used between  dates  and  times, and the 3-em  dash  is used to signal  omitted information in certain (often legal) situations.  The  en-dash  can be created  by pushing down the ALT key and typing 0150, while the 3-em  dash  is created by typing six hyphens. Let’s discuss each type of dash  more fully.

Em-Dash
Again,  the em-dash can be used to replace  parentheses, colons,  and  commas.   It may be particularly useful  when you need to set off information that already contains some sort  of punctuation, like commas.   Em-dashes can be used to suggest  an afterthought, to set off extra information within a sentence, to signal  an abrupt shift, and to emphasize a thought or sentence.

To Summarize or Illustrate a Thought
Em-dashes can be used to summarize or illustrate a thought as in the example  below. Ex. Freud found  the three  structures of the psyche—id, ego, and  superego.

In  this  example,  the “id, ego, and  superego”  further illustrate or define the three  structures of the psyche.   So, why might you decide to use a dash  here instead of a colon or a set of parentheses?

Let’s discuss  the example  below a little further.

     Ex: Freud found  the three  structures of the psyche: id, ego, and  superego.

     Ex. Freud found  the three  structures of the psyche (id, ego, and  superego).

     Ex. Freud found  the three  structures of the psyche—id, ego, and  superego.

All three  of these  examples  are grammatically correct, but  the levels of formality and  the rhetorical effects are different. The examples  that use the colon and  the parentheses are considered more formal,  while the dashes  lend a more informal feel to the sentence. Importantly, these  examples  also have different meanings.

The  use of the colon forces the emphasis in the sentence to the list  itself, making the list  the point of the sentence.  The parenthesis has the opposite effect: “the structures of the psyche”  is more important than the list.  The parentheses suggest that the list  can be dropped from the sentence—it isn’t essential to the meaning of the sentence or paragraph.  Again,  the use of the dash  is the most  informal and  suggests  here that the list  is an extension, afterthought, or aside to the discussion.

To Set off Extra Information in a Sentence
Em-dashes can also be used to set off extra  information in a sentence.  You can think of em- dashes  like commas  that set off extra  information (a non-restrictive clause) in a sentence.

To make this comparison clearer,  here is an example  of a sentence that uses commas  and  then an example  of a sentence with dashes.

Ex:   The  behaviorists, Ivan Pavlov,  B. F. Skinner, and  John  B. Watson,  seem to be the most common  of the names  that people know in psychology.

Ex:   Most  of the car companies—GM, Ford, and Chrysler—are having  financial problems because of the bad economy.

Notice  that the dashes  (because of the white  space they create  around the list)  make  the list more prominent.

To Signal  an Abrupt Shift
Another way to use em-dashes is when you want  to signal  an abrupt stop  or interruption, often in dialogue.

Ex:   “I just  want  to say that I do not  deserve—,”  Bonnie  ran  away as fast as she could before Jason  could finish  his statement.

Ex:   I don’t  really want  to stay at Aunt Susan’s  house—you  know how messy her house is—because she always wants  me to help clean the house.

Notice  how this  use of the em-dash signals  a shift  in person  and  tone. To Emphasize a Thought or Sentence

The  final  way that you can use em-dash is when you are trying to be dramatic or to emphasize a concluding commentary on the rest  of the sentence.

Ex:   Some small  businesses will make it through this  hard  time—but most  will not

Notice  that the dash  here functions to emphasize that the commentary that follows the dash  counters what  comes before it.

Hint:  If you overuse em-dashes, the emphasis will be lost and  the audience will not  take  the dashes  as serious  or dramatic.

 

En-Dash
Compared to the uses of the em-dash, the uses of the en-dash can be considered formal, but there  are limited situations in which the en-dash can be used.

The  en-dash  can only be used between  times, dates,  and  forms  of indexing. Ex:   World War II (1939-1945) resulted in the weakness  of Germany.

Ex:   I have to work 2:30-7:00 p.m.  on Friday.

Ex:   If you follow column  D to row 7, it would be called D-7.

 

3-Em Dash
3-em  dashes  are generally  used to omit a name  that should  not  be disclosed  or to signal  that word(s) have been left out.

This particular dash  is normally used in legal documents to protect the innocent. You can either use six hyphens or use an underscore.

Ex:   The  case between  ------ and  ------ will start tomorrow around 2 p.m.

Practice Exercises
Test  your understanding about  how to use dashes  by using  em- en- or 3-em  dashes  in the sentences below.  You may need to replace  current punctuation and/or  fix dashes  that are used incorrectly.  Check your answers  by looking  at the section titled “answers” below.

 

  1. The  siblings, Carl,  Dirk, and  Ashleigh,  want to go to the water  park  today  instead of tomorrow.
  2. The  less Bryce thought about  his situation, the more he calmed  down,  even relaxed  a little.
  3. The  two business men—and--are going to be prosecuted for embezzling money.
  4. The  document needed  some additional elements:  a title  page, an abstract, and a reference  page.
  5. This journal article  needs to include  some specific information (name  of article, name  of journal, volume  number, and  page number) in the reference  page.
  6. Most  research shows that the Gilded  Age was from 1875 to 1914.
  7. The  war presidents, Washington, Lincoln, and  Roosevelt,  will always be remembered for their  bravery,  while some presidents—Polk, Harding, and  Hoover—will  not  be remembered as easily.
  8. It seems that some students do not know how to incorporate research  into  their documents, or even find  reliable  research for that matter, because  they have not  been thoroughly taught how to do that.
  9. The  defendant decided  to plead guilty  to get a less severe sentence.
  10. I know that the theatre is open between  the hours  of 3 and  6, but the show does not start till  between  7 or 8.
  11. “I will always be here to help you,” he smirked vindictively as Carol  rolled  her eyes.
  12. Karen  felt so overwhelmed that she started to cry—even sob.
  13. Some documentation styles use page numbers to indicate where cited  information came from,  namely, APA.
  14. The  thesis  statement, topic  sentences, and  organization, all need to be looked at thoroughly in the document.
  15. Cassandra was not really paying  attention when Glenn  was making the statement,  “You need to be more careful  with  how much  you spend.”

 

Answers

  1. The  siblings—Carl, Dirk, and  Ashleigh—want to go to the water  park  today instead of tomorrow.
  2. The  less Bryce thought about  his situation, the more he calmed  down—even  relaxed  a little.
  3. The  two business men ------ and  ------ are going to be prosecuted for embezzling money.
  4. The  document needed  some additional elements—a title  page, an abstract, and a reference  page.
  5. The  journal article  needs to include some specific information—name of article, name  of journal, volume  number, and  page number—in the reference  page.
  6. Most  research shows that the gilded Age was from 1875-1914.
  7. The  war presidents—Washington, Lincoln, and  Roosevelt—will always be remembered for their  bravery,  while some presidents—Polk, Harding, and Hoover—will  not  be remembered as easily.
  8. It seems that some students do not know how to incorporate research  into  their documents—or even find reliable  research for that matter—because they have not been thoroughly taught how to do that.
  9. The  defendant ------ decided  to plead  guilty  to get a less severe sentence.
  10. I know that the theatre is open between  the hours  of 3-6,  but the show does not  start till 7-8.
  11. “I will always be here to help you--,” he smirked vindictively as Carol  rolled  her eyes.
  12. Karen  felt so overwhelmed that she started to cry—even sob.
  13. Some documentation styles use page numbers to indicate where cited  information came from—namely, APA.
  14. The  thesis  statement, topic  sentences, and organization—all need to be looked at thoroughly in the document.
  15. Cassandra was not really paying  attention when Glenn  was making the statement—“You need to be more careful  with  how much  you spend.”