Friday 30 July 2010

Punctuation (Doing the Dash)

In my previous blog posts on punctuation, we've looked at:

* the full stop
* the comma
* the semi-colon
* the colon

Today we're going to do the dash. Do you think you know exactly what doing the dash is?

Think again.

Are you talking about doing the 100 meter dash? Cutting a sartorial dash? Dashing for the door? No?

Then perhaps you’re thinking of the dash in punctuation? That little mark of separation that takes the place of commas or parenthesis?

Oh, right. That is the dash you’re talking about? I’m glad I got that cleared up!

So…tell me, are you talking about the en-dash? Or the em-dash? What do you mean you didn’t know there was more than one type of dash? Well then, now you know. But do you know the difference between the two?


• can be confused with a hyphen, which is used when compound adjectives modify a noun, as in “award-winning novel”. The word "award" modifies "winning" and together they modify "novel".

• usually half the width of an em-dash.

• indicates relationships, such as "the Johannesburg-Cape Town flight."

• indicates numbers, such as "I am twenty-one years old” (the en-dash, please note, does not indicate the difference between lies and truth) or number ranges, such as “6-20 people are expected to attend the book launch” (read as six to twenty people).

• does not usually have spaces before or after the letters, although there are exceptions.(Compare “The Johannesburg Book Fair runs from 7 August–9 August” with “The Cape Town Book Fair runs from 30 July – 2 August”. The latter sentence is less confusing.)

THE EM-DASH (—) or (--):

• indicates a pause or a momentary redirection of thought:

Louise Erdrich, in her novel Tracks, uses the dash when she writes, “I have no idea which prayer I spoke that night, I cannot recall the words. I cannot remember my lips moving, whether there were notions in my head. If my knees hurt, if I hungered, if I felt anything — that’s lost.” (Pg 94)

• is used to set off or highlight a clause when the use of commas does not give the clause sufficient weight:

In Music & Silence, Rose Tremain writes “Christian imagines the faces of his councillors, like fat pink potatoes balanced on their starched white plates of ruffs. These men — those of them who will bestir themselves to come to the meeting — will listen to the speech, but no hint of worry or anguish will be visible on their faces.” (Pg 166)

If the information you are feeding the reader is clearly incidental to the main sentence, it may be better to use parenthesis.

• also indicates an interruption:

"I was just going to try you again—” I tell him.
"This is Detective Rafferty,” Beezer says. (From Pg 37 of The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry.)

• or an unfinished statement:

“Do you really want to eat —.” It was too late. He’d already swallowed the last cupcake.

• show breaks in thought and shifts in tone:

“Do I have to ask you again how to —” Mom suddenly stopped talking and looked out the window.
“To do what?” I prompted.
“To — Oh, I forget!” and her hand rubbed awkwardly at her forehead, as it had too often in the last weeks.

• the house style will dictate whether you put spaces before and after your em-dashes.

Remember that doing the dash is not without its problems:

• The dash is too informal for academic or business writing

• CAUTION: Overdoing the dash can result in reader exhaustion!
# As the dash is more dramatic than commas or parenthesis, over use lessens its impact.
# Too many dashes could suggest undisciplined thinking or an inability to omit unnecessary details.
#Over-use of dashes could prevent you from developing your main thought or idea.
# By inserting numerous asides between two dashes, you could be hedging, that is, not taking a firm stance about a single thought.

The dash certainly spices up a manuscript when it’s efficiently used. All it takes is a little bit of practice and soon you’ll be doing the dash, both seduced by its versatility and tempted by its impact.

“The Art of Punctuation” by Noah Lukeman
“Penguin Writers' Guides: How to Punctuate” by George Davidson
“Collins Wordpower: Punctuation” by Graham King
“The Original University of Chicago Press Manual of Style”
Free Image from Clip Art


Judith Mercado said...

A wonderful treatment of the subject. I'll be sure to reference this post when I have doubts. Thanks.

CA Heaven said...


Your series on punctuation tips is very useful ... the one on the semi-colon is still my favorite >:)

Cold As Heaven

Anita said...

I think when you're done with all the punctuation posts, you should post again as one humungous post so I can print it all out and keep it in my special drawer--I want hard copy in case world problem occurs that keeps me from accessing it.

Helen Ginger said...

Wonderful lesson. Thank you very much. I've read a passage before that had so many asides that by the time I finished the sentence, I'd forgotten what the original thought was.

Straight From Hel

Yvonne Osborne said...

Good post, Judy. I love the em-dash but right you are, we mustn't overuse lest it lose its punch.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the lesson in dashes. I didn;t realzie there was so much to our little firends. I have about five in my book. Effective if not overused. Have a great week.

Stephen Tremp

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Oops, had to many spelling error in the last comment, so deleted it.

JUDY: Glad you found the post useful.

COLD AS HEAVEN: Go on, Heaven. Admit it. Just confess. You're in love with the semi-colon, aren't you? And that's all there is to it, isn't it...? :):)

ANITA: haha! I find the problem with printing things out for my special drawer is that when I want them, the drawer is stuffed so full I can't find them! :)

HELEN: That's happened to me too!

YVONNE: I must confess to loving the em-dash too. I've got to be ruthless with them in my revisions.

STEPHEN: Yes, it's interesting how much there is to punctuation. And yet punctuation marks always seem so small and insignificant.

Anonymous said...

I love using the dash--I really do. But I have to watch out for overuse.

Amanda Holly said...

Thanks for a great post - from a dash lover!

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

You know--and, I say this knowing I'm out of sync with the times--I like seeing a lot of dashes in what I read. Nice post.