Top Punctuation Howlers – The Dash

The Dash – The Tool for Informal Authors

The dashing and dynamic dash is used when commas, parentheses, semicolons, etc., just don’t have the empathetic oomph to convey an idea or interject a thought. However, the overuse of the dash can make your writing appear overdramatic and never ending without the finality of other stops or end punctuation marks.

Similar to the days of old typewriters, in the plain text world of online publication, creating a true dash (–) just isn’t possible. To appease dash purists – if it’s not possible to create a long dash – two hyphens side-by-side will suffice. However, it’s becoming more widely acceptable to use one dash with a space on either side – which we do here.

If you have the fantastic ability to create an en dash (length of an “N”) or an em dash (length of an “M”), its usage is indicated below: em dash or en dash.

Use a dash if a sentence contains an appositive (noun or noun phrase next to another noun or noun phrase). em dash

My brother – a nurse by training – is incredible at CPR.

Use a dash if a sentence has a smaller sentence within it that is an abrupt interjection, similar to a parenthetical thought or interjection. em dash

No one would ever suspect Clark Kent – a bespectacled, serious reporter – of being Superman.

Use a dash for asides, explanations, or parenthetical statements. em dash

The villain was last seen fleeing the crime scene – police were hot in pursuit.

Use a dash in the place of a colon for more emphatic effect. em dash

Listen up – while you were out, I earned a doctorate, and won a Nobel Peace prize.

Use a dash for a series within a phrase. em dash

He listed the qualities – organized, team player, and punctual – that we’re looking for in a dog sitter.

Use a dash for attribution. em dash

“What would men be without women? Scarce, sir … mighty scarce.” – Mark Twain

Use a dash to indicate a journey from one place to another. en dash

The New York – Paris flight was over 16 hours.

Use a dash to indicate a continuation of an amount (e.g., pages, years, etc.). en dash

On pages 432 – 460, Vlad the Impaler was described to have lived 1431 – 1476.

Here are two more dashing tips:

  • Never use more than two dashes in a sentence, i.e., don’t create a run-on sentence with dashes.
  • Dashes are traditionally not accompanied by other forms of punctuation – except when a question mark or an exclamation mark is needed to help convey the parenthetical phrase.

If you’re going for an informal tone, feel free to use the dash to spice up your writing. Just don’t forget to use these dash usage tips to strengthen your writing skills, as well as maintain your credibility as an Expert Author. We will have more grammar tips in the next few weeks, so stop by the Blog for the latest and greatest tips to error-free articles.

Did you miss our last edition of Top Punctuation Howlers? Find out more about the hyphen here!

34 Comments »


1
nate writes:

I’m surprised you didn’t touch on the SEO problem that happens with dashes (of any kind) that don’t have a space between them and surrounding words. It’s been my experience that you loose whatever word(s) abut the dash. The SEO treats the dash as part of the word(s).

Comment provided September 21, 2012 at 10:36 AM

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2
Cris Baker writes:

On a web-page, or anything that may be remotely involved in SEO, I only use normal hyphens.

I like em and en dashes, and use them for articles I write for myself, but for the web, the trouble they cause is not worth the bother…

Comment provided September 21, 2012 at 12:35 PM

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3
nate writes:

I agree with avoiding trouble :) But for a web page title/header, an en or em dash looks so much better. I think that as long as you’ve got a space between the dash and the words around it, SEO can interpret it as garbage and it won’t matter. No?

Comment provided September 21, 2012 at 12:52 PM

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shannon writes:

I love those dashes! Now I just have to wonder if I overuse them – like maybe all the time?

Would love you to do a piece on the most annoying phrases – like, what not? It has no meaning and is used in the oddest of sentences. What is what not?

Comment provided September 21, 2012 at 1:48 PM

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Joyce Rogers writes:

LOL! You ought to be glad you don’t live in the deep south. We really have fun with phrases like “I’m fixin ta” as in I’m fixin ta go to the mall. “I’m finda” as in I’m finda go pay the rent. Then there’s “I tell you whut.” or “You ben not do dat again.” I love myself some Paula Deen. It’s a dialect that many fine rather cute. :) It will always be a wonder to me, how that once the Britains got to America, they lost their accent and wound up talking the way they do now – in the south. I have always wondered how in the world that happened.

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5
davidinnotts writes:

Nice to see that EzineArticles now recommends a single en dash for an em dash (-), rather than the previous two (–). It always felt clumsy.

Just to expand a little and give some background, there are traditionally (with the old metal type) three dash lengths. What we try to do today is to recreate something similar with the teletype ASCII character set, which is pretty-well the old-fashioned typewriter set and reproduces faultlessly anywhere online. It has only one dash, character 45. (See http://www.asciiset.com for the set.)

The em dash is the longest. In the old metal type, it was on a square piece, the capital M in most fonts being that size. Its traditional uses are as marked ’em dash’ above. Today, that poses justification problems, because the em-dash was used (and still is in books) without any spaces, and most HTML justification requires spaces to make a carriage return (go to the next line). In effect, two words with an em-dash are treated as one word. You can see this problem in books which have been digitized for an e-reader like the Kindle.

The en-dash is exactly half the width of an em-dash, the typical size of a capital N. It’s used as marked above. It also was generally used with a very thin metal space, so it does not have the same justification problems on digitizing.

The third kind of dash is the hyphen. This is the teletype character 45, the dash on your computer (and a typewriter) keyboard. It’s used to make compound words (even-tempered, salt-free, pre-formatted, em-dash) and to split words over a line-break when starting a new line – which most word-processors do automatically.

The problem with trying to make real em- and en-dashes today is that most computer fonts allow a little space at the ends of the hyphen, so that a row of dashes (hyphens) don’t make a continuous line. Hence EzineArticles’ double dash not coming out quite like an em-dash. It’s a pity that someone, at the HTML design stage, didn’t think about these points and make it work properly! By the way, you can get a full em-dash if you want it; it’s character 196 and is usually supplied as a ‘special character’. But don’t use it in emails or directly with HTML – it’s likely to come out as a jumble of special characters, as somebody’s Apache server fails to decode it properly. You’ll have seen emails with a mess of such stuff!

So now, we use a hyphen for all jobs, which looks clumsy and occasionally confusing to those who know how things should be – and could have been with a little foresight. Such is the Web!

Comment provided September 21, 2012 at 2:09 PM

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6
Marsha writes:

It’s completely easy on a Mac or a PC to insert an em or an en dash. You are using hyphens for all three purposes, and whether or not they are separated by a space, they’re not a dash. Just Google how to insert a dash, and you’ll find out how simple and fast it is. Oh, and it’s Mark Twain, not Marc. I am glad, however, that you address the use of dashes.

Comment provided September 21, 2012 at 3:28 PM

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7
Lance Winslow writes:

No, we must do it the “old way” because that’s the proper way, and the Internet, just because 4.5 Billion people are doing it this new way, we MUST not change the grammar rules – and anyone who suggests this is WRONG. And even if someone writes 27,777 articles and 10.5 million words and does it this new way, he cannot possible have the write to writer’s prose or changing grammar rules. Further, it is not that much trouble to put in the extra dashes, so, we MUST forever be forced to follow the ancient text rules which were produced before the Internet ever existed. Ha ha ha.

See my point now?

I caught hell in our last discussion about changing grammar rules, but this time, I am vindicated.

Comment provided September 21, 2012 at 4:11 PM

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8
davidinnotts writes:

Change the ‘old ways’ just because millions are sloppy? Never – unless there’s good reason. There are many kinds of people that you’ll want to impress in your articles. The sloppy will accept anything. The majority are more picky, with their own ideas, very varied, about what’s going too far – and you can’t please all of them if you’r ‘relaxation’ of grammar isn’t their way. Then there is the minority, but still plenty, who know good grammar and prefer to see it used – and they are the people whom this series on punctuation aims to address.

If you’re a wise writer, you’ll address your intended audience in a way they’ll find comfortable. You can write formal, easy or technical. But most of your stuff will be for a fairly broad audience, and you don’t want to lose any of them – do you? So get the basics of spelling, punctuation and grammar pretty-well right and no-one will be offended and lost. Isn’t that worth a little extra trouble?

Our language IS changing, but there’s broad agreement of the current rules, and it’s wise to use them – and profitable. Be dogmatic about anything and it’ll hit your pocket. Follow the general trend while satisfying the picky and you gain.

So, Lance, you’re right that we shouldn’t try to follow the artificial, Latin-based, picky rules of the 19th-century ‘grammar masters’. That was a widespread practice up till maybe 30 years ago, and it always was wrong and ignored by the best authors. But neither should we abandon useful practices which make your work acceptable to the widest readership, more expressive and more accurately defined.

Comment provided September 21, 2012 at 4:42 PM

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Dave Keays writes:

After your point about focusing on the comfort of your intended audience, the bull’s eye is red from being hit so squarely.

Excuse me for being picky, but your comment has a grave misspelling. When you wrote “sloppy” it should have been spelled “have perspective”. Your first sentence should have read “Change the ‘old ways’ because millions have perspective?”

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davidinnotts writes:

No, Dave, I meant ‘sloppy’, as in ‘knows the rules fairly well but doesn’t care’. We people with perspective are a different lot!

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9
davidinnotts writes:

Hey, Joyce! I’m English and, you know, there are more variants of the language in the country of origin than in the rest of the world put together. A local dialect Cornishman and southern Welshman are separated by 20 miles of sea – but can have trouble understanding each other. A Scouse and a Glaswegian find each other almost foreigners.

US dialects are generally understandable by most, but they all came from a blend of several of these UK dialects with maybe some extras – like Spanish or French – and then developed to their own uniquely delightful mellifluity. Britons going to America didn’t lose what they had, they blended in and made the language richer. This is still happening.

Bill Bryson, the humorous travel writer, wrote a book about this, and I can thoroughly recommend it to EzineArticles writers. It’s called ‘Mother Tongue’, and it describes how English English arose and how it travelled across the Atlantic. He’s a New Englander, I think, but he spent a lot of time on England and has edited two ‘style manuals’ for newspapers – I think it was the Chicago Tribune and the Times of London. So he knows what of he speaks. Oh, and he also wrote the ‘Dictionary of Troublesome Words’ and the ‘Dictionary for Writers and Editors’. All three are well worth getting and using to help your writing.

Comment provided September 21, 2012 at 5:00 PM

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10
Randall Magwood writes:

I love using dashes in my articles. Helps to separate 2 points within 1 sentence. Also helps me to not use the semi-colon too easily (did you see that there? lol)

Comment provided September 21, 2012 at 6:50 PM

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11

Excellent tips. I agree that the dash can be overused. Any form of punctuation can. How about!!! and the ever loving emoticons people force into every form of written communication these days. Personally, I like the ellipses. I’ll keep these tips in mind, and only add a dash of the dash in my pieces!

Comment provided September 22, 2012 at 6:54 PM

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shayla bryant writes:

yep, I am agree with your opinion.

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12
Robert Brain (aka Brainy) writes:

Hi.

Great article; but I was surprised to read that: “…creating a true dash (–) just isn’t possible…”.

On the contrary, in many computer apps (eg. MS Office apps, Open Office apps, and many others), you can easily type an em-dash using the appropriate numeric code. For the em-dash, the code is 0151, and to type it into your document or whatever, simply have the Num Lock keypad on the keyboard enabled, then hold down the Alt key with a finger on your left hand, and type the four digits 0151 on the numeric keypad — Voila!

This also applies to characters like © using 0169, and fractions, like half 0189, and many more. All you need is a table of these values handy.

Cheers

Robert Brain

Comment provided September 22, 2012 at 7:06 PM

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davidinnotts writes:

True enough, Robert; and Word at least does treat this em-dash correctly. But the problem remains that many web servers run on old software which doesn’t properly recognize any characters except those in the original – not the extended – ASCII character set.

EzineArticles seems to treat these extended and special characters correctly now (at least, as far as I’ve seen) and, for example, is converting the old double-dash-for-emdash to a longer dash. But your article – you hope – will be copied in many ways and may well end up in emails frequently. How many potential clients do you wish to discard, just for being dogmatic about using the correct (but non-ASCII characters, and feeding them a mess of stuff that might look like (I’m guessing the control characters):

“When you?%^re going 1&%/%^2 way to my house *(- I?%^ll be there to meet you.”

This is not my idea of a friendly message, and it simply uses a directional apostrophe rather than a plain one (twice), a 1/2 character and an em-dash to say:

“When you’re going halfway to my house – I’ll be there to meet you.”

You see how quickly things foul up?

So allow for those unfriendly old Apache servers to be in your delivery chain as your precious story-child gets transmitted around the world, and stick to the original ASCII set. It’s the only course that’s bulletproof!

By the way, Word (unless you switch off ‘smart text’), will generate loads of these characters. That’s fine when you want good books, letters, etc., but not when the article may be sent in plain text on the Web – and you hope it will be, don’t you?

A tip to reconvert is to copy your article into a basic text editor like Microsoft’s Wordpad. This is just about smart enough to convert the fancy characters back into the basic ASCII equivalent that the program uses – though you need to check that it’s all fixed as you like it. Then reimport the text into where you’re working. Just remember that if it goes back into Word and you then begin editing, those ‘smart characters’ will start replacing the simple stuff again!

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13
davidinnotts writes:

Nope, Dave!

I once spent a year trying to teach English grammar to less-than-proficient teens. I reckoned that I could do a better job than the real English teachers – and I succeeded! But it taught me a serious lesson.

Those kids, who found great difficulty reading and writing comfortably, DID learn to punctuate well under my careful tuition (and the amused eyes of ‘proper’ English teachers). They learned the rules, and I gave them fun tests occasionally to check up. But it was too much for them to work out what they wanted to write, and to concentrate on spelling and grammar, both at the same time. I couldn’t argue! When they did a perfect piece (which gave them great pride) it was at the revision.

These were people at the bottom end of functional literacy; any less competent and they’d be classed as illiterate in any test. They, and to a lesser extent the majority of people who are average, DO struggle with expression and accuracy all together. So it’s commonplace for people to sacrifice accuracy for reasonable communication, to take reasonable shortcuts. And, of course, it’s commonplace for people to experiment with language (or why would leet speak be so popular?)

So yes, I think a majority of people are sloppy with their language and see this as no crime. If they are writing (or speaking) ‘important stuff’, they’ll take more care. But if they are communicating what they want to with enough accuracy to satisfy themselves, why bother taking more care over something that is, to them, pretty hard work? If someone misunderstands, it’s up to them to say so, isn’t it?

But there’s another side to this. Folk may be sloppy themselves, but they can sure spot sloppiness in others, too! Which is why I say that it profits US authors to be accurate, even for the majority who usually are not. And, of course, the last thing we want is for our carefully-crafted message to be misunderstood!

Comment provided September 24, 2012 at 4:09 AM

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14

Thanks for this and the many great tips. I have always prided myself on having good things to say but horrible grammer to say it, so your quick reviews help with that.

Comment provided October 15, 2012 at 1:10 PM

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15
shayla bryant writes:

Penny, you are a good teacher to us.

Comment provided October 16, 2012 at 5:23 AM

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16
Hillary Villano writes:

If you’re familiar with the ginger program. Is this similar? Or some auto-correct programs?

I want to try this though and thanks for the information and sharing.

Comment provided November 12, 2012 at 8:07 PM

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17

Thank you! This is very useful! I always been having with my grammar and this has been prove to be useful.

Comment provided November 20, 2012 at 8:23 PM

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18
Odessa Akerley writes:

I love it! This is very useful and I want to thank you for having this idea. I love it.

Comment provided November 27, 2012 at 8:41 PM

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19
Guy Crapo writes:

I’ve been using this program and it has been very useful to me. Thank you. :)

Comment provided December 6, 2012 at 11:26 AM

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20
Ricky writes:

Thank you for a great English lesson here. Any thought on ending a sentence with three (dots) … especially with Twitter… ?

Comment provided May 15, 2013 at 12:58 PM

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21
davidinnotts writes:

Ricky, three dots is an ‘ellipsis’ (look it up) and is converted automatically in Word into an ellipsis character (which mucks it up for HTML, so you want to avoid this conversion when you’re writing for this website). It has two uses in good English style.

1) to indicate (usually in a quotation) that some words have been missed out. If you quote someone else’s work, you’ll often be required to insert an ellipsis when you miss out bits of the text section you’re quoting, so that readers know where you’ve not fully included to quoted text.

2) to indicate an inconclusive ending to a section of your writing, usually a sentence ending, and usually for dramatic effect. For example:

“He opened the door. It creaked. He looked in and… [fresh paragraph]
Josie came whistling down the corridor. She was full of lighthearted cheer…

I’ve used these two examples to illustrate the most common uses of the ellipsis. Firstly, for a dramatic change of pace (using both sentences) and secondly, to indicate that I’ve finished up my example (the second sentence only).

It’s common to use an ellipsis to separate unconnected thoughts. That’s OK in drafting or casual notes (and maybe twitter, if you want to seem VERY casual), but you must really polish this up into full sentences before worldwide publication, as for an EzineArticles article.

Comment provided May 15, 2013 at 6:57 PM

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22
Ricky writes:

Thanks David. I have been using this “ellipsis” in twitter.

Comment provided May 15, 2013 at 7:32 PM

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23
Jamison Gwillim writes:

Thanks for the tips! very interesting!

Comment provided July 22, 2013 at 11:47 AM

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24
John Sanders writes:

This is educational.

Comment provided July 23, 2013 at 8:38 AM

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25
Lawliet Lynn writes:

This article satisfies the Grammar nazi in me :)

Comment provided July 31, 2013 at 5:17 PM

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davidinnotts writes:

I don’t know if that’s good or bad, Lawliet! As several replies above have said, it’s good to be careful, but too much pickiness will put off the very people you’re writing your articles to satisfy. And do note tat point I made about stuff that you hope will circulate by email – use the dash on the keyboard only, and if you’re writing in Word or another word processor, switch off the ‘smart text’ engine.

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26
Carol Howard writes:

“Never use more than two dashes in a sentence, i.e., don’t create a run-on sentence with dashes.”

alright…

Comment provided October 4, 2013 at 2:24 AM

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davidinnotts writes:

Spot on, Carol! It only confuses.

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