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English Lesson 23: Correct Use of Dashes

September 6th, 2008

dashes-types.jpgThe issue of using dashes as punctuation marks can become somewhat complicated. However, in this article I will attempt to simplify things as much as possible while still providing a sufficiently detailed explanation for the proper application of dashes and examples of correct usage.

First of all, it is important to distinguish dashes from hyphens. The hyphen is relatively short in length and is usually used to form compound words. It is also traditionally used in typography to indicate that a word has been split by a line break. By contrast, dashes are longer and have different uses in English sentences where a hyphen would not be entirely appropriate.

There are two major types of dashes. The first is the en dash, which is so named because its original length was supposed to be equal to that of a lowercase letter n. This dash is most commonly used to indicate an interval of some sort. It can also be used to connect points of geographical destinations and in rare instances of compound phrases where it is necessary to have a stronger separation than a hyphen. For example:

  1. Intervals of time in years: (1908–2000)
  2. Connecting destination points of a route: New York–London flight
  3. Separating parts of compound phrases that already contain hyphens: shock-wave–boundary-layer interaction

Some guides, most notably the Guide for the Use of the International System of Units (SI) recommend that the word to should be used instead of the en dash in the case of indicating numerical ranges. Their reasoning for this is that the en dash may be easily confused with the minus sign, which is technically an arithmetical operator used to indicate subtraction or negative numbers.

The second type of dash is the em dash, named after its length which was originally equivalent to an uppercase M. This dash is significantly longer than the en type and is usually used to separate parts of a sentence in standard English prose. Here are its major specific uses:

  1. An abrupt change in the flow of a sentence where the text description that follows the dash is unexpected or significantly deviates in tone from what came before it
  2. An abrupt termination, such as when a person is speaking and is suddenly interrupted before finishing a sentence
  3. A parenthetical remark — like this — where there is initially an abrupt change but the normal flow of the sentence returns after the second dash
  4. When quoting something and attributing the source, the em dash can be used to separate the text of the quote from the name of the person or other source that is receiving the attribution
  5. When typing an enumerated list, the em dash can be used in place of a list bullet. However, with the advent of modern word processing and blogging applications, it is preferable (and usually more convenient) to simply use the standard bullets for these types of lists as I have done here.

For actually typing the dashes, some computer keyboards (including mine) do not have proper keys assigned to either type of dash, but it is still possible to type them into your text; the exact method used may depend on your software and operating system. On Windows systems, an en dash can be created by holding down the Alt key and typing the numbers 0150 on the numeric keypad. When you release the Alt key after typing the four digits, you should see the en dash appear in the space where your cursor was located. If you’re using a Macintosh operating system, most keyboard layouts will map the en dash to Option-hyphen.

Meanwhile, the em dash can be created by simply typing two hyphens in succession. Both the Microsoft Word and WordPress applications will “auto-correct” the two hyphens to form an em dash before the text is actually saved or published. Alternatively, for Windows systems you can hold down the Alt key and type the numbers 0151 on the numeric keypad. For Macintosh systems, the em dash is usually mapped to Shift-Option-hyphen.

Regarding the issue of whether or not to place spaces between dashes and the surrounding text of a sentence, there is considerable disagreement and a lack of any true consensus even among major authority sources. Some style guides prefer to use spaced en dashes for use in running text, while others recommend using spaced or unspaced em dashes. The choice of which format to use ultimately seems to depend on one’s personal taste rather than any rigid system of rules. My own convention that was established after I began blogging is to use spaced em dashes in regular sentences. This seems to give my text an extra bit of readability and also prevents awkwardly spaced line breaks that may be created by using unspaced dashes.

10 Responses to “English Lesson 23: Correct Use of Dashes”

  1. comment number 1 by: Ravi Kalmady


    Thanks for this post.

    I was searching for info on how to use the dash–or the hypen–at the end of an article, when you’re attributing the article to a source.

    For instance, I want to convey that the following article is from The Guardian.

    Do I do it this way:

    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Proin laoreet, mauris eget adipiscing pretium, tortor odio feugiat nisl, id bibendum mauris sem ac ligula. Integer faucibus vestibulum iaculis.-The Guardian

    Or do I do it this way:

    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Proin laoreet, mauris eget adipiscing pretium, tortor odio feugiat nisl, id bibendum mauris sem ac ligula. Integer faucibus vestibulum iaculis. - The Guardian

    As you can see, the top one has no space before or after the hyphen, and in the second one, the hyphen (which has a space before and after it) will automatically become a dash in MS Word while typing.

    My gut feeling, as more or less confirmed in your post, tells me the second example is the right way to do it.

    Would appreciate it a lot, if you could kindly confirm it.

    Thanks very much.

  2. comment number 2 by: Karlonia


    Yes, your second example looks better and is pretty close to the way I do it. Whenever I do quotations or citations, I will type one space after the period, press the hyphen key twice, then type another space before the author or source. In WordPress and most word processing programs, the double hyphen will be converted into an em-dash that looks slightly longer than a single hyphen and provides a nice separator.

    If you look at one of my quote pages (just go to the search bar and run a query for “karlonia quotes” and you should see results for these pages — you can also find some of them by scanning through the Humor category), you will see many examples of the em-dash between the quotes and their authors.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the technicalities, however. Even if you just use a single hyphen, this will look fine for most readers as long as you put spaces around it.

  3. comment number 3 by: Ravi Kalmady

    Thanks for the quick reply.

    I did look at your Quotes pages, and yes, the em-dash puts in much more clarity into reading than a hyphen with a space on each side.

    Either way, as I understand, a hyphen (when you’re attributing an article) with NO spaces around it is strictly a no-no. (Besides, isn’t a hyphen meant just to join two words?)

    In MS Word, two hyphens convert into an em-dash, but a single hyphen converts into an en-dash (of course when you put spaces on both sides).

    Anyways, you have answered by basic question to start with — about a space before AND after the hyphen when attributing to a source. I understand it is required, and makes sense.

    Thank you for the lucid explanation.

    Good luck with your blog, which is quite fascinating.

    I’ll be back.

    PS: I’m ‘Zakman’ in your Recent Visitors widget :)

  4. comment number 4 by: Karlonia


    Yes, you’re right about the case with hyphens and no spaces; this would be awkward and confusing because the last word of the sentence would be joined with the first name of the author as a single word, which does not make sense. The hyphen without spaces is usually used in the case of multi-word adjective phrases like “well-honed skill” and occasionally in compound words. Note that in the case of compound words, many of them evolve into regular single words without hyphens. For example, about 15 years ago “on-line” was often hyphenated when referring to the Internet, but in modern usage we just say “online.”

    Meanwhile, I already noticed your name in the BlogCatalog widget. I have clicked through to your three blogs and will look at these in greater detail later. Right now I am in the process of building two other sites (for AdSense revenue), so I need to focus my efforts on these until they are completed. After that, I will be able to get back to blog browsing and commenting.

  5. comment number 5 by: Judy

    Hi there.

    Hope you don’t mind me running this one by you to ensure that I’ve correctly used the em-dash and referenced the quotable material in this sentence.

    Dghialme akd akdmijakm fmajka aadjkakkk fj fjala kd a dkdd, fladhfki a ssk a afmsk “fkaaik fksks” and lakdith fsth sljlkm “fkak kkss jfjf.” — John Smith, Travel + Leisure.

    Thanks so much.

  6. comment number 6 by: Karlonia


    Yes, the em-dash looks correct. I’m not sure about that gibberish text though; I tried to put the first part of it “Dghialme akd akdmijakm” through a Google search to make sure that it was not duplicate spam content and Google displayed a message that said:

    Did you mean: “Dghialme akd akd mijakm”.


  7. comment number 7 by: Ravi Kalmady

    Yeah, strange.

    I put the “Dghialme akd akdmijakm”” through Google search too and Google displayed:

    “Did you have your coffee yet?”

    Then I tried Yahoo search and that said:

    “Stop being such a smarty pants.”

    Exasperated, I tried msn search, and it said:

    “Are you coming from karlonia.com?”

    By the way, Judy, if I may butt in, the em-dash there looks perfect. That’s exactly what I decided to do (after quite a few altercations in the office and half a ton of research) for attributing my sources…

    …thanks to Karl here.

  8. comment number 8 by: Judy

    Thanks for your comments.

    I should have noted that the quotable comments in the sentence are just gibberish and represent exact phrases from John Smith, Travel + Leisure. Is the use of the em-dash and the reference still correct in this case?

  9. comment number 9 by: Karlonia


    Yes, your usage of the em-dash is correct. This is actually the same format that I use when attributing quotes to their authors. I am not sure if you are aware of this, but I have many such quotes listed on several pages of this site, and these happen to be some of the most popular pages in terms of traffic. If you visit these pages, you will see plenty of examples of where I have edited the punctuation on the quotes to include the proper usage of the dash.

    Probably the easiest way to find these pages is to go to my search bar on the top of my sidebar to the right and just run a query for “quotes.” This should produce several relevant results for you to look through. I have quote collections on different topics like friends, money, power, water, and several other things. You can also reach some of the quote pages by clicking on the “Humor” category and going back through some of the older posts. The quotes themselves are a mixture of humorous sayings and “words of wisdom” types of statements that I have found particularly agreeable.

  10. comment number 10 by: joshua

    I think this is great i mean im an average guy who battles with english but still gets his 70’s in it and this helps tremendously

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