Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Let's talk Dashes Today

Dashes are used for three reasons:

  • To set off material you might put into a parenthetical expression but deserves more emphasis.

"Everything that went wrong -- from the peeping Tom at her window last night to the my head-on collision today -- we blamed on our move" (Hacker, 2007).

  • To set off nouns or noun phrases that rename the earlier noun

"In my hometown, the basic needs of people -- food, clothing and shelter -- are less costly than in a big city like Los Angeles" (Hacker, 2007).

  • To set up a list or a dramatic shift in tone

"Along the wall are the bulk liquids -- sesame seed oil, honey, safflower oil, maple syrup, and peanut butter" (Hacker, 2007).


"Kiere took a few steps back, came running full speed, kicked a mighty kick -- and missed the ball" (Hacker, 2007).

Yesterday we mentioned the em-dash. What we are referring to here is using 2 hyphens ( --). Most computer programs already have this in the formatting. If you have ever noticed when you put in a hyphen and then move on, how it increases in size. This is the em-dash.

It should be noted that in the case of the list, using a colon would be the better choice.



  1. Okay, I want to make sure I have this straight. When using the em-dash -- the typesetter converts this into the longer version I see in novels? (I read this in yesterday's post)

    I've driven myself nuts trying to make the longer version in my MS's and have resorted to ... instead. Is ... wrong?

  2. This is a great explanation of em dashes. I wish everyone would read it and learn. A solitary, out-of-place hyphen stops me cold--trips me up every time, often to the point of not reading any further. Sadly, I see it frequently, even in blogs about writing.

    You might want to add another use for the em dash: in dialogue to indicate that the speech of one person has been interrupted by another (I lifted this one from CMoS):

    "Well, I don't know," he began tentatively. "I thought I might--"

    "Might what?" she interrupted savagely. "Might what?"

    The above could lead into a great post on speaker attributions and adverb abuse!

    [signed: your friendly typesetter]

    ps: I used a double hyphen instead of an em dash because I've no idea what this blog's html code would do to it.
    pps: Here's a test em dash — just to see what will happen.

  3. A side note from a magazine editor (and former typesetter):

    Many writers, not knowing the difference, submit manuscripts containing en-dashes instead of em-dashes.

    En-dashes, for those who don't know, are the dashes that are longer than hyphens, but shorter than em-dashes, and they have a specific purpose in properly typesetter material.