The Dash

August 14, 2009



Back to talking about punctuation!  As mentioned in my latest post on punctuation, the dash is often confused and used incorrectly.  Or, sometimes, the dash is not used and a comma is used in its place.  Below are two examples which are wrong. 

An unnecessary dash where a comma could do the job:

“Barack broke through last night with voters who were watching — but we need to get the word out to the millions who didn’t tune in.” campaign manager David Plouffe, memo to Obama’s supporters during his run for office.

Comma used in place of the dash:

“Don’t worry about making it pretty, they will do that, just make sure the mathematics is right.” “Get Out Your Pencils,” Newsweek, 4 Apr. 1994.

Possible revision:

Don’t worry about making it pretty—they will do that—just make sure the mathematics is right.


Well, then, how should the dash be used?

First, there are actually two kinds of the dash, called the regular dash or em dash (—) and the en dash (–).


The em dash (—) acts like a “super comma” and used for:

1)      Separating an interjection or remark from the sentence with no space between the dash and the interjection 

The summer English camp program costs her whole paycheck—I can’t believe this!—but is well worth it because she will have a chance to interact with native speakers.

2)      Separating a list of items which contains internal punctuation

The three courses offered—conversation, grammar, and culture—are meant to improve the campers’ English skills.

In the above instances, sometimes people prefer to use the brackets (…) instead of the dash; however, some say the dash seems to be more welcoming than the brackets. 

3)      Indicating a break or the continuation of a sound in written dialogue

“Sean, why don’t you continue reading page—,” said Mrs. Smith.

“Page 31?” Sean interrupted.

“Yes, page 31,” replied Mrs. Smith in agreement. 

“Ah—!” screamed Ann.


There are never more than two em dashes in a sentence.  When an em dash is inserted, it must be finished off with another em dash or an ending punctuation like the period (.).


The en dash (–) is a bit wider than a hyphen (-) but functions differently:

1)      Indicating a range of time or date

The summer camp hours were from 8:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.

2)      Joining compound adjectives when the two adjectives do not modify each other but modifies the same noun

The Fall–Winter camp session will be longer and more comprehensive than the summer one.

The SeattleLos Angeles flight to the summer camp took longer than expected.