How to Use a Dash

Alone or in Pairs?

The dash (—) is a mark of punctuation used to set off a word or phrase after an independent clause or to set off a parenthetical remark (i.e., words, phrases, or clauses that interrupt a sentence). 

This mark of punctuation is technically known as an em dash or em rule. Don't confuse the dash (—) with the hyphen (-): the dash is longer. 

"The dash is seductive," Ernest Gowers said in Plain Words: "it tempts the writer to use it as a punctuation-maid-of-all-work that saves him the trouble of choosing the right stop."

Probably Scandinavian, akin to the Danish, "to beat."

Examples and Observations

  • "A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses." (William Strunk, Jr, and E.B. White, The Elements of Style)
  • "The dash is less formal than the semicolon, which makes it more attractive; it enhances conversational tone; and . . . it is capable of quite subtle effects. The main reason people use it, however, is that they know you can't use it wrongly." (Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 2003)
  • "To complicate matters, en and em dashes sometimes mean the same thing: American style guides advocate using unspaced em dashes to set off parenthetical clauses—like this—whereas most British texts prefer a spaced en dash – like this." (Keith Houston, Shady Characters. Norton, 2013) 

Dashes Used to Set Off Words or Phrases After an Independent Clause

  • By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity—another man's, I mean." (Mark Twain)
  • "My cow turned out to be a very large one. The first time I led her out I felt the way I did the first time I ever took a girl to the theater—embarrassed but elated." (E.B. White, "A Week in November")
  • "London looked like the moon's capital--shallow, cratered, extinct." (Elizabeth Bowen, "Mysterious Kor." The Demon Lover and Other Stories, 1945)
  • "Her face solar and leonine under the striplight, Goldie was looking on as they cleared the table—the glasses, the Wotsits, the Fairy Toast." (Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)
  • "Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper middle-class family in full plumage." (John Galsworthy, The Man of Property, 1906)
  • "Life, said Samuel Butler, is like giving a concert on the violin while learning to play the instrument—that, friends, is real wisdom." (Saul Bellow, "My Paris," 1983)
  • "To become a London cab driver you have to master something called The Knowledge—in effect, learn every street, hospital, hotel, police station, cricket ground, cemetery, and other notable landmark in this amazingly vast and confusing city." (Bill Bryson, Notes From a Small Island. Doubleday, 1995)

Dashes Used to Set Off Words or Phrases That Interrupt a Sentence

  • "Copper Lincoln cents—pale zinc-coated steel for a year in the war—figure in my earliest impressions of money." (John Updike, "A Sense of Change." The New Yorker, Apr. 26, 1999)
  •  "The totality of living matter on earth—humans and animals, plants, bacteria, and pond scum—makes up 0.00000001 percent of the mass of the planet." (Alan Lightman, "Our Place in the Universe." Harper's Magazine, December 2012)
  • "Cardinal Walter Kasper—short, sturdy, 81—lives at No. 1 Piazza della Città Leonina, a brick apartment building near the old Vatican walls. . . ." (Paul Elie, "The Pope in the Attic."The Atlantic, May 2014)
  • "The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year—the days when summer is changing into fall—the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change." (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web. Harper & Row, 1952)
  • "The city is always full of young worshipful beginners—young actors, young aspiring poets, ballerinas, painters, reporters, singers—each depending on his own brand of tonic to stay alive, each with his own stable of giants." (E.B. White, Here Is New York. Harper, 1949)
  • "The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success. That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease." (William James, letter to H. G. Wells)
  • "Sitting for hours idle in the shade of an apple tree, near the garden-hives, and under the aerial thoroughfares of those honey-merchants—sometimes when the noonday heat is loud with their minute industry, or when they fall in crowds out of the late sun to their night-long labours—I have sought instruction from the bees, and tried to appropriate to myself the old industrious lesson." (Logan Pearsall Smith, "The Busy Bees." Trivia, 1902)
  • "These aren’t old graves, as New England cemeteries are measuredthere’s nothing before 1800, I believebut their stories are familiar. Many small stones are in remembrance of infants or children who died at an early age, often three or four in the same family; there are also names of young men or old captains lost at sea. There’s a low gray column bearing lowercase lines of verse in memory of a beloved wife who died in 1822, at the age of twenty-seven. Many of the namesFreethey, Eaton, Bridges, Allenare still well represented in Brooklin today. What I noticed most, thoughthe same idea came over me every timewas that time had utterly taken away the histories and attachments and emotions that had once closely wrapped around these dead, leaving nothing but their families and names and dates. It was almost as if they were waiting to be born." (Roger Angell, "Over the Wall." The New Yorker, November 19, 2012)

Dashes and Ellipsis Points

"Use the terminal dash to suggest that a statement suddenly breaks off; use the terminal ellipsis to suggest that it trails away.

As your C.O. I'll have to say no, but as your friend, well—.
The Victorians are secure, but the modern novelists. . . .

(Winston Weathers and Otis Winchester, The New Strategy of Style. McGraw-Hill, 1978)

"Oh, little girl, have you a penny to spare for a poor old woman that's not got anything of her own? We don't have a thing in the world—not a penny for candy—not a thing! Little girl, just a nickel—a penny—." (Eudora Welty, "A Visit of Charity." The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Harcourt, 1980)

Dashes With Other Marks of Punctuation

"[T]he single most momentous change in twentieth-century punctuation [was] the disappearance of the great dash-hybrids. All three of them—the commash ,—, the semi-colash ;—, and the colash :— (so I name them, because naming makes analysis possible)—are of profound importance to Victorian prose, and all three are now . . . extinct." (Nicholson Baker, "The History of Punctuation." The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber. Random House, 1996)

Dashes generally don't mingle with other punctuation marks, with the exception of quotation marks, exclamation points, and question marks. If the material set off by dashes is an exclamation or question, those marks are included before the second of the pair of dashes:

His job—we all know that he likes to keep busy!—was to tend the children while their parents attended church.

Her goal—did she send you the memo?—was to raise money for a new childcare center.

Since the dash replaces the comma, no comma is ever necessary before a dash.

A comma is placed after a dash only if the dash ends a quotation and is followed by a speaker tag. Material that is set off by a dash may have one or more commas within.

Oscar came home from work—he was a blacksmith—and turned on the air conditioner. (no comma)

"Is everyone—," said Olivia, choking with emotion. (comma before the closing quotation mark)

In British style the last example would be punctuated differently, with single quotation marks (which the British call inverted commas) and the comma placed outside the quotation:

'Is everyone--', said Olivia, choking with emotion. (comma after the closing quotation mark)

(Geraldine Woods, Webster's New World Punctuation: Simplifed and Applied. Wiley, 2006)

The Problem With Em Dashes

"The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don't you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won't be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that's not yet complete? . . .

"Perhaps, in some way, the recent rise of the dash—and this 'trend' is just anecdotal observation; I admit I haven't found a way to crunch the numbers—is a reaction to our attention-deficit-disordered culture, in which we toggle between tabs and ideas and conversations all day. An explanation is not an excuse, though—as [editor Philip B.] Corbett wrote in another sensible harangue against the dash, 'Sometimes a procession of such punctuation is a hint that a sentence is overstuffed or needs rethinking.' Why not try for clarity in our writing—if not our lives? . . .

"More likely, it's the lack of hard-and-fast usage rules—even the AP's guidelines are more suggestions than anything—that makes the dash so popular in our post-sentence-diagramming era. . . .

"[I]f you want to make your point—directly, with clarity, and memorably—I have some advice you'd do well to consider. Leave the damn em dash alone." (Norene Malone, "The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash." Slate, May 24, 2011)

Pronunciation: dash

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "How to Use a Dash." ThoughtCo, Dec. 15, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, December 15). How to Use a Dash. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "How to Use a Dash." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 18, 2018).