Guide Your Reader with Puncutation: Dash It Anyway

Some writing teachers say dashes indicate sloppy writing. These teachers suggest good writers prefer commas, colons, or parentheses. If you got that message about dashes, dash it anyway.

Of course, I don’t want to you overusing dashes any more than I want to see you overusing exclamation points, but dashes can be very effective if you use them correctly.

Dashes do two things. They summarize (that’s a single dash) and they create a sharp break (that’s a pair of dashes). Commas create breaks too, but the break is softer. Parentheses create breaks too, a little stronger than commas, but not as strong as dashes do.

Your reader knows how dramatic your break is by the punctuation you select.

Here’s an example of dash showing summary. Serious writers do three things–observe, read, and write. (Summarizes what they do.)

Here’s an example of dash as a sharp break. What Jerry thought about his boss–if he thought about him at all–was unflattering. (Sharp break in sentence.)

Now that you know when to use a dash,  give some thought about formatting dashes.

Hyphens are those short lines that join words (two-year-old).

En dashes are the width of the letter n and are used between inclusive numbers (2009-2010).

Em dashes are the width of the letter m and are used between words (see above).

3-em dashes are used in bibliographies for successive works by the same author.  They are also used to show letters are  omitted from the text (example: It was reported that Mrs. O___ and Mr. B___ were seen in a compromising position.)

Notice there are no spaces either before for after the dashes.

The most popular word processing programs allow you to create a shortcut key for the em dash and the en dash. Some are programmed to have two hyphens automatically become an em dash. But it’s up to you to assure there are no spaces around the dashes.

Happy writing!

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