Dashes are part of a professional writer’s toolbox. They are used to create pauses and indicate strength of words. If you want to up your blogging or content game, get comfortable knowing when to correctly use them.
The hyphen, the shortest dash, is probably the most misused. People insert it in place of longer dashes or type two hyphens rather than a long dash. Today, say “no more” to incorrectly used hyphens! You want to look like you know what you’re doing, right?
A hyphen’s most common use is for compound adjectives: when two words are combined to create a single adjective:
- four-foot table
- 10-page report
- 3-year-old child
A hyphen should never be used in place of an en or em dash. It doesn’t read well. I see this a lot in online writing. A hyphen where an em dash should be always trips me up. Don’t make your reader go back and reread a line!
An en dash is slightly longer than the hyphen. It’s used to indicate space between times and dates, and is read as “to” or “through”:
- 4 – 6 p.m. (4 to 6 p.m.)
- 2000 – 2016 (2000 to 2016)
- Monday – Thursday (Monday through Thursday)
AP Style requires a space before and after the en dash.
Emily Dickinson was fond of placing em dashes at the end of a line, and her work became easily recognizable because of this.
The em dash is one of my favorite punctuation marks. It’s a long dash that can be used to break up a sentence — especially when what follows the em dash is closely related to what’s before it. The em dash is read as a strong pause, similar to a period. There are several ways to use an em dash.
In place of commas
If you want to make a nonrestrictive clause stand out, use em dashes rather than commas, like this:
- Mary, who was completely unprepared, saved our haphazard presentation with some skillful ad-libbing and landed the new client.
- Mary — who was completely unprepared — saved our haphazard presentation with some skillful ad-libbing and landed the new client.
The em dashes give more weight to the words between them. They indicate that it’s important for you to know that Mary was unprepared.
In place of parentheses
- Bob adopted his dog (a Golden Doodle) from a local animal shelter.
- Bob adopted his dog — a Golden Doodle — from a local animal shelter.
As with replacing commas, the em dashes here indicate importance to the breed of dog.
In place of a colon
Similarly, a colon can be replaced with an em dash when emphasis is needed.
- Snow, sleet, freezing rain: this is the forecast for the weekend.
- Snow, sleet, freezing rain — this is the forecast for the weekend.
Lastly, em dashes are inserted between a quote and its speaker.
- “To be or not to be, that is the question.” — Hamlet
- “To be or not to be, that is the question.” – – Hamlet
If you’re still not convinced what the big deal is about using hyphens, ask yourself which one of the above looks more professional? Set yourself apart from what the majority of others are doing incorrectly.
The proper way to use insert em dashes, according to AP Style, are with a space before and after. Academic style guides such as MLA and APA require no spaces. Personally, I like the way the em dash looks with the spaces. I think it’s more readable.
How to create em dashes on your computer keyboard
There are several ways to do this. Microsoft Word automatically creates en and em dashes when you make the following keystrokes:
Word → space → two hyphens → space → next word.
When you hit the space bar after the next word, an en dash is created.
Word → two hyphens → word.
When you hit the space bar after the next word, an em dash is created. If you are using AP Style, you can then go back and insert spaces before and after the dash.
En dash = Alt + 0150
Em dash = Alt + 0151
Hold the Alt key down and enter the numeric keys. When you release the Alt key, the dashes are formed.
The character map, found in the Windows 10 start menu under “Windows Accessories,” can be used to copy and paste en and em dashes. Once the character map is open, choose the font you are using. Then, scroll through that font until you find the en or em dash. You then select and copy the character and you can paste it into your document or text. This is the most time-consuming method, but some laptop keyboards do not allow the creation of these dashes with the Alt and numeric keys. So if you’re not using MS Word or a desktop computer, you may have to use the character map to insert them.
Luckily, our mobile devices provide an easy way to insert en and em dashes. I discussed this in my previous post.