WRITING:  DASHING THROUGH THE SNOW             January 16, 2018


In writing, correct punctuation marks are critical to readily clarify relationships and meanings for readers, thereby avoiding confusion that cannot readily be resolved.  Writing is normally more formal than speaking, where listeners can say they’re confused, ask for clarity and receive it on the spot.

Dashes, commas, and parentheses can be used effectively to set off material that interrupts the main sentence.  Today, we will deal only with dashes to keep readers’ attention.  We will have lessons on commas and parentheses very soon.

DASHES emphasize the interrupting material.  Like the white-gloved traffic cop whose raised palm tells you to stop, the first dash points to the interrupting material and announces, “Time out! Stop, look, and listen!” Then, like the traffic cop who points to you when you’re permitted to resume driving, the closing dash points toward the remainder of the core clause, saying, “And, now, back to our show.”  

The irritable child–with her constant complaining and crying–causes much distress.

Notice how a dash is typed: with two unspaced hyphens when the en dash or em dash* are not available, without spaces between them and the word that precedes or follows:  child–with her constant complaining and crying–

Do not use lone hyphens (spaced or unspaced) where dashes are necessary.

Dashes: Can be formed in three ways, in three lengths, depending on their role within the sentence.

  1. When a dash separates numbers (often meaning “to”), it’s typed as a hyphen:

pages 22-99              October 18-24           Social Security Number 193-48-2765

  1. A dash often indicates a break in thought:

Race me–if you think you have a chance to win.
They try–but do not always meet–the professor’s impossible deadlines.

  1. Four unspaced hyphens are used as a dash that replaces an omitted word:

It’s a secret! I can’t tell the name of her lover, Mr. —-!  [Only this kind of dash is preceded by a space.]

A dash or a pair of dashes sets off and emphasizes a key insertion.

  • Many men have adored Sophia Loren–one of the loveliest women alive.
  • Sophia Loren–one of the loveliest women alive–has been adored by many men.

If your sentence continues after an interruption, you must end it with a second dash. Note that your sentence must make sense if the interruption is removed.

Although Beth took up painting–somebody said she had a natural talent–she soon realized that she lacked sufficient training.

Again, your sentence should make perfect sense, logically and grammatically (be able to stand alone independently), if the interrupting material is removed:

Although Beth took up painting, she soon realized that she lacked sufficient training.

Only one pair of dashes should be used in a sentence; minimal use maintains their emphatic effectiveness. Do not combine a dash with a comma or a period.

Because he no longer loved her–his behavior made it clear–she finally accepted it and left.

The dash also may be used in situations like the following:

He definitely didn’t love her any longer–he could love only himself.

Valerie treasured nostalgic reminders of her dog–a collar with dangling licenses, a favorite toy, and a plastic baggie of fur.

“Hide, Susie, hide!” yelled little Tommy. “That bully’s jumping the fence and–”

*The availability of computers allows the use of two other types of dashes:

Em dash: an unbroken dash the width of the letter “m” (some people refer to this as a “long dash”). Use it as you would a regular dash. Note that your computer program may change your double-hyphen dash into an em dash; otherwise, you may insert the em dash among your text via the “Insert, Symbol” option.

Hippie clothes, wild music, student sit-ins against the war—the campus government decided that things were getting out of control.

En dash: an unbroken dash the width of the letter “n” (some people refer to this as a “short dash”). Some professionals disagree on its size and use.   While some say the en dash is the same width as a hyphen, most say its width is halfway between the hyphen and the em dash; we agree with the latter, and your computer will display it as such. Like the em dash, you may insert the en dash among your text via the “Insert, Symbol” option. Because it is a little longer and thus more visible than the standard hyphen, it can be used more effectively to bridge dates when the words “to” or “through” are not feasible, such as within parentheses and on résumés:

Henry Dickinson (1875–1963)     Programmer at NCR  29 January 1987–29 August 1989

[Where space permits, the em dash may be better to use between full dates.]


Many lessons and bits of advice in this writing/grammar series have been taken from Writestyle’s online campus of courses covering Grammar, Punctuation, Proofreading, and Editing.  If you need help, we’re here for you.




Vickie L. Weaver

Vickie L. Weaver

Owner at Writestyle
Writing has been an important talent and part of my life since I was a child.Professionally, after decades of employment for others, I founded Writestyle in 1996 to provide writing, editing, proofreading, training, and more to clients worldwide (www.writestyle.com).Clients often call my work “magic.”I have written and/or edited for “Coexistence Magazine” (national), for “Ohio Magazine,” and for various newspapers.In addition, I have edited or contributed to the writing of numerous books.Personally, I have written in various genres.I have always composed poetry; as such, I have won awards and publication for some of my poems, and I am compiling a book of my poetry.One of my children’s books is set for publication.With my second husband, family and friends in Ohio, I enjoy music and dance, aid charitable causes, and strive for beauty and harmony in life.
Vickie L. Weaver

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