Rules for using dashes in English

Em Dash (—) vs. En Dash (–) | How to Use in Sentences

The Em Dash and En Dash in English

Punctuation in English is a system of marks, such as dashes, hyphens, commas, periods, and others that are used to structure text and give it proper grammatical form. In this article, we will look at the use of em dashes and en dashes in English. The em dash (—) is an important punctuation mark used to indicate a strong break or pause in a sentence, while the en dash (–) is used to indicate a range between numbers, dates, times, etc. They also serve a number of other functions within a sentence. We will review the basic rules and examples for using each type of dash in writing so that you can learn to utilize them properly.

What is a Dash?

A dash in English is a punctuation mark that is used to indicate an appropriate syntactic break or pause. It appears as a horizontal line in writing. Such punctuation allows for changes in emphasis, expressiveness, and reading pace. In English punctuation, there are several types of dashes, each differing in length and function. Specifically: the em dash, denoted in English as Em Dash (—) and the en dash, denoted as En Dash (–).

The em dash typically indicates a strong break or interruption in a sentence, allowing emphasis or an abrupt change in thought. The en dash has a main role of indicating number, date, or time ranges. Beyond this, dashes assist in various other ways with the flow and feel of sentences. Proper use of dashes, and understanding the subtle differences between them, helps writing feel more professional and aids comprehension for readers.

The difference between the Em Dash, En Dash, and Hyphen in English

The em dash (—) is distinguished by its length (approximately the width of a capital “M”) and is used to create strong pauses within sentences. This helps call attention to certain elements and allows time to reflect on what was said or read.

  • The concert—which was scheduled for 8 PM—was cancelled due to inclement weather.

The en dash (–) is about the width of a capital “N” and serves a connecting role, indicating ranges, connections, or alternatives. Its purpose is to smoothly join elements without the sharp breaks characteristic of the em dash.

  • His birthdate — September 10, 1990 – marks the beginning of a new era.

The hyphen (-) is shorter than both dashes and mainly functions to join words into compound terms or connect prefixes and suffixes.

  • The train-bus combination is the fastest way to reach the city.

Dash Functions Within a Sentence

  1. Joining words: En dashes indicate important connections like number, date, or time ranges. They bridge gaps between items, promoting flow and cohesion.
  2. Creating strong pauses: Em dashes inserted into sentences generate an abrupt, meaningful pause. They draw attention to text and provide emphasis through that pause.
  3. Calling attention: Both em and en dashes highlight specific words or phrases within a sentence. They lend style to writing, allowing structural variety and boosting visual interest in key terminology.

The Em Dash — Creating strong pauses

The em dash (—) is a punctuation mark that can be used in place of commas, colons, semicolons, or parentheses. Typically, the em dash allows for the strongest pause out of these options within a sentence. It is also often used stylistically to draw a reader’s attention to certain information. For example:

  • She was the most beautiful woman in the world — until she met her twin sister.

When to Use the Em Dash:

  1. To emphasize a word or phrase:

    • Example: “The research findings revealed a substantial improvement in patient outcomes — reduced hospital readmissions and improved quality of life.”
  2. To append parenthetical phrases:

    • Example: “The questionnaire included questions related to participants’ demographics — age, gender, and educational background.”
  3. When providing an explanation:

    • Example: “The participants — students from different disciplines, including biology, psychology, and sociology — completed the questionnaire.”
  4. To shift focus within a sentence or indicate an abrupt change:

    • Example: “The conference featured renowned speakers, interactive workshops, networking opportunities — all designed to enrich the attendee’s professional development.”

The En Dash — Indicating ranges

The en dash (–) is a punctuation mark primarily used to convey numerical and date spans. It can also add clarity when forming compound adjectives. The en dash gets its name from being the width of the letter “N.” It is employed with numbers and dates when the word “to” needs to be communicated. En dashes also substitute for the word “to” with times, dates, and page numbers to denote either inclusive or spanning ranges. For example:

  • The First World War (1914–1918) was one of the deadliest conflicts in history.
  • This job demands frequent evening and weekend work in addition to regular 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. hours.
  • The document was heavily redacted, with pages 46–52 removed altogether.

When to use the En Dash:

  1. Denoting ranges (of numbers or dates):

    • Example: “The conference will take place on October 10–12, 2023.”
  2. To contrast terms:

    • Example: “The qualitative–quantitative research approaches yielded distinct perspectives on participants’ experiences.”
  3. Describing connections, directions, or scores:

    • Example: “The Boston–Washington train departs at 6 p.m.”
    • Example: “The article discussed the benefits of a mentor–mentee relationship in academic settings.”
  4. Joining compound adjectives and terms:

    • Example: “The post–World War II era was marked by significant changes.”
    • Example: “The London–New York flight.”

Common dash usage mistakes to avoid

There are some common mistakes made when using dashes in English writing. Let’s review errors to steer clear of when applying dashes:

  • Don’t confuse dashes with hyphens. Hyphens join word parts together, while dashes offset word groups.
  • Don’t use dashes alongside commas. Commas and dashes serve distinct purposes in a sentence and mostly shouldn’t be used together.
  • Don’t use a dash when a colon or parentheses are needed. Colons and parentheses are more formal and less emotive than dashes. Opt for a dash only when you want to create strong emotion or a casual tone.
  • Overusing dashes hurts readability. Use dashes for emphasis or clarification, not as a blanket replacement for other punctuation.
  • It’s important to supplement dashes with other punctuation: Dashes are impactful but not the only punctuation available. Neglecting commas, colons, or semicolons when appropriate can lead to mistakes. Each mark has a unique role, and harmony between them enables balanced, correct writing.
  • Pay attention to dash spacing. Typically dashes don’t have spaces before or after them, but styles vary. Most American grammar omits spaces around dashes, while British style favors spaces on both sides. Just stay internally consistent in your text.
  • Consider words instead of dashes for clarity in certain contexts: In some cases, words communicate ranges more clearly than dashes. For example, “to” may be more understandable than a dash when conveying a span of values.

How to type Em and En Dashes (Keyboard Shortcuts)

When typing on a computer, a common question arises: how do you input the long em dash (—) and en dash (–) on your keyboard? One option is to copy and paste them from another document or the internet, but that takes extra time.

A better approach is using keyboard shortcuts:

  1. For the em dash (—):

    • Windows: Hold down “Alt” and type “0151” on the numeric keypad. Release “Alt.”
    • Windows: Use hex code: “2014 + Alt + X
    • Windows: Long dash  “Ctrl + Alt + –” using the numeric keypad on the right.
    • Mac: Press “Shift + Option + Minus
  2. For the en dash (–):

    • Windows: Hold “Alt” and enter “0150” on the numeric keyboard. Let go of “Alt.”
    • Windows: Hex code “2013 + Alt + X
    • Windows: Short dash  “Ctrl + – ” using the right numeric keyboard.
    • Mac: Press “Option + Minus.”

Remember these shortcuts and you’ll streamline inserting dashes into text. Note the numbers need to be typed on the numeric keypad on the right while “NumLock” is enabled.

Conclusions about the basic rules with a dash

Mastering em and en dashes greatly improves sentence construction in English. Though small, these punctuation marks heavily influence sentence cadence and reader comprehension. Understanding when and how to apply dashes and hyphens ensures clear communication without confusion or misinterpretation. In conclusion, let’s recall the basic rules for using dashes in English:

  • The em dash (—) creates strong pauses within a sentence for emphasis. Use em dashes to offset an abrupt change in thought, append parenthetical phrases, or highlight important words or explanations.
  • The en dash (–) connects numbers, dates, times, and other terms representing ranges or contrasts. En dashes smoothly join elements without disrupting flow.
  • Hyphens (-) combine words into compound terms and affix prefixes/suffixes. They are shorter than dashes.
  • Don’t pair dashes with commas—they serve distinct purposes. Use a dash only when you want an informal, emotive pause.
  • Take care with dash spacing: em and en dashes typically don’t have spaces next to them. Stick to one style consistently.
  • Dashes draw attention and lend style but overuse hurts readability. Supplement with commas and other punctuation as needed.
  • Use keyboard shortcuts to input em (—) and en (–) dashes efficiently as you type. This saves copying/pasting effort.
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