Mastering the dash, Part 1


Let’s get to know the dash. It’s good for breaks and pauses, emphasis and force. In Part 1 I’ll explain how to create the right dash and go over some rules. In Part 2 I’ll discuss several good uses and try to dispel a myth.

The dash discussed here is the em dash. It’s a long, horizontal punctuation mark—like these—and should be distinguished from the en dash – like these – a shorter mark with different uses. On a typewriter, you create a dash by typing two hyphens with spaces on either side. Are you using a typewriter? Then don’t use two hyphens. “Use real dashes,” says Matthew Butterick in Typography for Lawyers.

To get the em dash in Word, type two hyphens, leaving no space on either side. Word should automatically convert that into an em dash. If you put a space before and after the hyphens, Word will convert that into an en dash, which is the wrong mark. (Yet so many writers use spaces that the shorter en dash is ubiquitous despite being technically wrong.)

You can also insert an em dash directly with the Insert Symbols function or with keystrokes: alt + 0151. On a Mac, hold down the Shift and Option keys and press the Minus key. Note that copying and pasting sometimes converts an em dash to a hyphen—a glitch you’ll want to catch when you proofread.

Rules? The dash obeys few rules. It’s flexible. You can use it in place of commas, colons, parentheses, periods, and semicolons.

In place of a comma:

  • It was the seller who balked, not the buyer.
  • It was the seller who balked—not the buyer.

In place of a colon:

  • The courts assess three factors: purpose, type, and effect.
  • The courts assess three factors—purpose, type, and effect.

A pair of dashes in place of a pair of commas or parentheses:

  • Calhoun’s statement, which was false, blamed the problem on Scoville.
  • Calhoun’s statement (which was false) blamed the problem on Scoville.
  • Calhoun’s statement—which was false—blamed the problem on Scoville.

The dash can even replace a period or semicolon, separating independent clauses:

  • Chen does not object to the fee. She asks that it not be disclosed.
  • Chen does not object to the fee; she asks that it not be disclosed.
  • Chen does not object to the fee—she asks that it not be disclosed.

With all these possibilities, how do you decide when to use a dash?

That’s Part 2.