The difference between dashes in the English language

by Jessica Millis

The use of a dash as a punctuation mark can be used to perform a number of functions. Just like a colon, parenthesis, a comma or ellipses, a dash can be used to indicate added emphasis, an abrupt change of thought or even an interruption. Any writer should be able to categorically differentiate these functions and understand that these marks can never be used interchangeably.

One common misunderstanding among writers is that they often cannot tell the difference between a dash and a hyphen. A good number of people tend to assume that they are one and the same thing which is not the case. A hyphen is the shorter version often used to link two or more words together (up-to-date). At times, it is used at the end of a line to break up a whole word that does not seem to fit. On the other hand, the dash is the longer version that is used as a punctuation mark. The dash is perhaps the most versatile piece of punctuation. To understand all the functions of the dash, read on.

Types of dashes

As mentioned above, the dash is longer and performs totally different functions from the hyphen. The dash can be differentiated into: the figure dash, the en dash and the em dash.

Here is an example on the same: 408‒555‒6792.

Example: October 13–November 18.

Example: Peter Miles, 1976—.

A good number of manuals have urged editors, writers and publishers to get rid of the en dash and maximize the use of the em dash. The em dash is the most commonly used types of dashes. Whichever one you opt to use, you need to know where to use it in order to give meaning to the sentences you'll be creating.

The two main purposes of the dash

Before one can use a dash appropriately, they need to have an idea of what an independent clause is all about. By definition, an independent clause can be described as a clause that can stand on its own as it contains both a verb and a subject which are a requirement in a complete sentence. When you understand how to identify an independent clause in a sentence, it makes it easier for you to know how best to use the dash.

1) The pause Dash

Here, a dash is used to alert the reader that they need to put a break once they get to that point in a sentence. It allows them to understand that what they have read is closely related to what they are just about to read. In such a case, the use of the dash can only be allowed once in a sentence.

Example: Peter gave me a cheap hair do – and expected me to tip him.

2) Parenthetical Dash

In this case, the dashes are normally used in pairs. They are used to set off nonessential elements in a sentence. The only rule that applies here is that when using the dashes in this scenario, you are advised to limit yourself to one pair per sentence. This will help you to avoid confusing the reader.

Example: I passed my exams – granted, I cheated – but who cares!

Other functions of a dash

a) To connect independent clauses

In this case, a dash is used to connect two independent clauses with one another. Most of these clauses have separate thoughts with a conjunction coming right after the second dash. It works like parentheses to be used as stronger punctuation mark as needed.

Example: Peter gave me a cheap hair do – and expected me to tip him.

b) To join sentences

A dash can also be used to put your sentences together.

Example: I passed my exams – granted, I cheated – but who cares!

c) To offset lists

Whenever you want to offset lists placed in the middle of an independent clause, a dash can be used in cases where commas are already being used.

Example: All my children – Tom, Thomas and Veronica – have gone to visit their grandparents.

d) Indicate interrupted speech in dialogue

When using a dash in a dialogue, it can be directed at implying an interrupted speech.

Example: John shouted, ''But I — But you said — …wait, what?''

e) Emphasize a sentence

In this particular case, a dash can be used to emphasize a sentence so that it makes more sense.

Example: I'll do it most definitely – provided that it sounds right.

With all that, the begging question remains; when should you use the dash? As a writer, you need to know when exactly to use the dash so that it can give the sentence its intended meaning. When a dash is used adeptly, it should give rhythm and dynamics to a sentence. It should give your sentence both energy and voice. The dash proposes a long pause to a sentence that is slightly longer than a parenthesis and significantly longer than a comma.

About the Author

Jessica Millis is an aspiring writer and professional editor. She works as a tutor at JMU (writing classes) and at writing service as an editor.


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