Do you use dashes correctly?

Periods, commas, question marks, and exclamation points sometimes just don’t cut it. So what about dashes? 

Punctuation is a crucial tool to use in your writing to clearly communicate your ideas. One area of punctuation that tends to trick many are the dashes—em dashes, en dashes, and hyphens specifically. Let’s talk about how using them correctly can take your writing up a notch!

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Hyphens are the shortest of the dashes and are used in a few different ways. Here are some:

  • For compound words, usually in the form of compound adjectives, but only if they come before the noun they modify. Compound adjectives are two words that work together to describe a noun. 
  • When a compound adjective is broken up by other words.
  • When there is a line break in between a word. This is when the word should be broken up in between a syllable.
  • When the spelling of a word is written

Let’s look at some examples.

  • The Philadelphia-based employees had a party.
  • The employees who had a party were Philadelphia based.

In the first sentence, “Philadelphia-based” (the adjective) describes “employees” (the noun) and comes before “employees” in the sentence, so it is hyphenated. This is not the case in the second sentence, so there is no hyphen. 

Since there is a range of time written here, “thirty” has a hyphen next to it since the time range is broken up by “and”:

  • It should only be a thirty- to forty-minute appointment.

We use hyphens here to spell a word:

  • The little girl spelled “dog” like d-u-g in her first grade assignment.

En dashes

En dashes are slightly longer than a hyphen (the same width as a capital “N”). They separate ranges of time, numbers, days, months, years, etc. They can also be used when a compound word (like what we saw with hyphens) contains more than the two words on either side of the en dash. Let me show you:

  • We stayed over at her house Monday–Friday.
  • We lived at that house from 1999–2010.
  • She will buy 3–5 bags of chips for the party.
  • The World War I–era lesson was informative.

Note in the last example that since “World War I” is one noun as a whole, but it’s three words, that is why an en dash is needed. Otherwise, if we used a hyphen, it would only be connecting “I” and “era”. The en dash indicates that we’re connecting the entire “World War I” with “era” for the compound word.

Em dashes

These are my favorite. They are so elegant, so dainty, yet sooooo misunderstood. Often, you’ll see a hyphen or en dash used instead of an em dash, but the em dash is the longest dash we’ll talk about today and also the width of a capital “M” Depending on the style guide you’re following, there may or may not be spaces on either side of it as well (so two hyphens don’t count as an em dash (–)). It’s used to insert more information into a sentence and can sometimes be used like a semi colon. 

Depending on the style guide you’re following, there may or may not be spaces on either side of it as well.

For example, we’ll use em dashes as such:

  • The test is tomorrow, but don’t forget—there will be five points of extra credit.
  • You will be thankful for signing up with us—plus, we also offer free coffee for every visit.
  • You will have such a great time—not to mention all of the great food that will be there.

These examples COULD use a period or “that” for the first example instead of an em dash, but the em dash creates a better flow to the sentence and prevents it from sounding too choppy. It’s a little more elegant, right?

Now you have in-depth knowledge regarding dashes—and will use them properly with confidence, Monday–Sunday. (See what I did there?)

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