How Do You Use Dashes?

Emily Thomas

In the world of punctuation, dashes hold a unique power. They can amplify a sentence, add emphasis, and provide a pause for thought. But when and how should you use them? Understanding the purpose and proper usage of dashes is key to wielding their grammatical might effectively. So, in this brief article, we will explore the various ways you can use dashes to enhance your writing and bring a new dynamism to your words.

The Purpose of Dashes

Dashes are a powerful punctuation mark that can add emphasis, create interruptions, connect elements, and provide clarification within a sentence. They can be used to convey various meanings and serve different purposes in writing. Understanding the different types of dashes and their functions will help you effectively use them to enhance your writing.

Emphasis and Interruption

One of the primary purposes of dashes is to emphasize certain words or phrases. By using a dash, you draw attention to a specific part of your sentence, giving it more weight and significance. This can help to make your point more impactful and memorable.

Dashes can also be used to indicate an interruption or an abrupt change in thought. By inserting a dash, you create a pause in the sentence, causing the reader to momentarily pause and consider the interruption. This can be a useful technique for adding suspense or surprise to your writing.

Range or Connections

Dashes are often used to communicate a range or connection between two elements. The en dash, specifically, is commonly used to indicate a range of dates, times, or numbers. For example, “The conference will take place from July 10–12, 2022.” In this sentence, the en dash connects the starting and ending dates, indicating the range of the conference.

Dashes can also be used to connect related words or phrases. By using a dash instead of a comma or a semicolon, you can create a stronger bond between the connected elements and make their relationship more apparent.

Parenthetical Statements

Dashes can be used to set off parenthetical statements within a sentence. These statements provide additional information that is tangential to the main idea of the sentence. By using dashes, you make it clear that the information enclosed within them is secondary but still relevant. This allows the reader to easily distinguish between the main idea and the additional details.

Types of Dashes

There are two main types of dashes used in writing: the en dash and the em dash. Each dash has its own unique function and usage.

En Dash

The en dash is slightly longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash. It is typically used to connect elements, indicate a range, or create a connection between two words.

Connecting Ranges

One of the primary uses of the en dash is to indicate a range of values, such as dates, times, or numbers. For example, “The meeting will be held from 9:00 am–5:00 pm.” In this sentence, the en dash connects the starting and ending times to indicate the duration of the meeting.

The en dash can also be used to connect a prefix or suffix to a word. For example, “pre–COVID-19” or “non–English speaker.” The en dash in these examples shows the connection between the prefix or suffix and the word it modifies.

Connecting Words

In certain situations, the en dash can be used to connect two words or phrases to create a compound adjective. This is often seen in descriptions of people or entities with multiple characteristics. For example, “a New York–based artist” or “a state-of-the-art facility.” The en dash in these examples links the words together to form a single descriptive term.

Em Dash

The em dash is the longer dash, approximately the width of a lowercase “m.” It is used to indicate emphasis, interruption, separation of clauses, or to conclude a sentence.

Reinforcing or Emphasizing

The em dash is particularly useful for reinforcing or emphasizing a specific word or phrase within a sentence. By enclosing the emphasized element in em dashes, you draw the reader’s attention to it and create a strong impact. For example, “I will not—I cannot—allow this injustice to continue.” In this sentence, the em dashes add emphasis to the refusal and make it more emphatic.

Interrupting or Adding Information

One of the key functions of the em dash is to indicate an interruption or the addition of extra information. By using an em dash, you break the flow of the sentence and insert the interrupting or added information. This can be used to add clarity, provide examples, or include additional details that further explain the main idea.

For example, “The athlete—a world record holder—impressed everyone with his performance.” In this sentence, the em dashes indicate the interruption of the main sentence to provide additional information about the athlete’s achievements.

Separating Clauses

Em dashes can also be used to separate independent clauses in a sentence. This can create a dramatic effect and add emphasis to the relationship between the two clauses. For example, “She studied hard for months—yet her efforts were not recognized.” In this sentence, the em dash separates the two clauses and highlights the contrast between the protagonist’s efforts and the lack of recognition.

Concluding a Sentence

In certain cases, the em dash can be used to conclude a sentence, particularly when the ending is abrupt or unexpected. This adds a sense of finality and can leave a lasting impression on the reader. For example, “He opened the door, stepped outside—and vanished into thin air.” In this sentence, the em dash concludes the sentence abruptly, leaving the reader with a sense of surprise or suspense.

How Do You Use Dashes?

Correct Dash Usage

To use dashes effectively, it is important to follow some key guidelines to ensure consistency, proper punctuation, and avoid overuse.

Use Consistently

Consistency is key when using dashes in your writing. Choose a dash style, either the en dash or the em dash, and use it consistently throughout your document. Using both types of dashes interchangeably can create confusion and disrupt the flow of your writing.

Correct Punctuation

When using dashes, it is crucial to ensure proper punctuation. The en dash is typically used without spaces before or after it, while the em dash is used with spaces or surrounded by spaces. It is important to distinguish between hyphens and dashes, as they serve different purposes. Hyphens are used to join words or divide them at the end of a line.

Avoid Overusing

While dashes can be a powerful tool in writing, it is important not to overuse them. Using too many dashes can make your writing appear cluttered and disrupt the flow of your sentences. Reserve dashes for instances where they add emphasis, clarity, or provide necessary interruptions.

Examples of Dash Usage

To further illustrate the different uses of dashes, here are some examples:

Emphasis and Interruption

  • “Your work has been exceptional—I am truly impressed.”
  • “The results—a groundbreaking discovery—were published in a prestigious journal.”

Range or Connections

  • “The event will take place on June 15–16, 2022.”
  • “She excels in both problem-solving and critical thinking.”

Parenthetical Statements

  • “The project deadline—due to unforeseen circumstances—has been extended to next week.”
  • “His comments—filled with sarcasm and disdain—angered everyone in the room.”

How Do You Use Dashes?

Avoiding Confusion with Hyphens

To avoid confusion between dashes and hyphens, it is important to understand the differences and use the correct punctuation.

Distinguishing Between Uses

Hyphens are shorter in length compared to dashes and are primarily used to connect words or divide them at the end of a line. They are commonly used in compound words, such as “well-known” or “self-confidence.” Dashes, on the other hand, serve different purposes such as emphasis, interruption, or connection.

Using the Correct Punctuation

When writing, pay attention to the specific dash or hyphen you need. If you are indicating a range or connection, use the en dash. If you want to emphasize or interrupt, use the em dash. Hyphens are used to join words, often in compound nouns or adjectives. By using the correct punctuation, you can avoid confusion and ensure clarity in your writing.

Additional Dash Usage Tips

Here are some additional tips to consider when using dashes:

Clarity and Style

Dashes can enhance the clarity and style of your writing. Use them strategically to attract attention to important points or to create a sense of interruption. However, use them sparingly and purposefully to avoid overwhelming the reader.

Replacing Other Punctuation

Dashes can sometimes be used to replace other punctuation marks. For example, a pair of em dashes can replace parentheses to provide extra emphasis. This can help to streamline your writing and make it more concise.

Grammar and Sentence Structure

When using dashes, consider the impact on the overall grammar and sentence structure. Dashes can affect the flow and rhythm of your writing, so ensure that they fit naturally within the context of your sentence. Review your work for any potential sentence fragments or run-on sentences caused by the use of dashes.

The Evolution of Dash Usage

The usage of dashes has evolved over time, influenced by historical perspectives, modern writing practices, and changes in style guides.

Historical Perspective

Dashes have a rich history in punctuation. The em dash is derived from the ancient Greek “periestigmenon,” which means “around a point.” Over the years, dashes have been used in various ways, reflecting changes in writing conventions.

Modern Usage

Modern usage of dashes has become more standardized, with clearer guidelines on when and how to use them. Style guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook, provide specific instructions on dash usage.

Changes in Writing Style Guides

Style guides have evolved over time, reflecting changing preferences and conventions in writing. Some style guides prefer the use of en dashes for certain ranges or connections, while others advocate for the em dash in various contexts. Keep abreast of the latest updates and guidelines in style guides to ensure your dash usage aligns with current standards.


Dashes are a versatile punctuation mark that can enhance your writing by adding emphasis, creating interruptions, connecting elements, and providing clarity. By understanding the purpose and types of dashes, as well as following correct usage guidelines, you can effectively incorporate dashes into your writing to improve its impact and readability.

Key Points to Remember:

  • Dashes can be used for emphasis, interruption, range, connections, and parenthetical statements.
  • There are two main types of dashes: en dash and em dash.
  • En dashes are used for ranges and connections, while em dashes are used for emphasis, interruptions, separating clauses, and concluding sentences.
  • Consistency, correct punctuation, and avoiding overuse are important when using dashes.
  • Dashes should not be confused with hyphens, and the correct punctuation should be used accordingly.
  • Dashes have evolved over time, influenced by historical perspectives and changes in style guides. Stay updated on the latest guidelines to ensure accurate usage.