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Dashes

By Stacie Heaps
Professional Writer and Editor



En Dashes and Em Dashes

Though en dashes (–) and em dashes (—) are sometimes confused or even used interchangeably, they have distinct purposes.

En Dashes

En dashes (–) are longer than a hyphen but shorter than a regular (or em) dash. En dashes are used to:

  • designate a range, such as inclusive page numbers, years, dates, and so forth.
  • differentiate between campus locations of a university.
  • hyphenate in open compounds.

You can insert an en dash into a Microsoft Word document by clicking Insert > Symbols and selecting the en dash from the palette of symbols, or you can press Alt + 0150 on a PC or option + hyphen on a Mac to insert the symbol.

Range

The most common use of the en dash is to designate a range of pages, months, years, or the like.

Examples: 

Please read pages 5–9 before coming to class on Monday.

Everyone here works Monday–Friday.

The play ran from 1999–2001.

We are generally open from 9 a.m.–3 p.m.

Children ages 3–7 are welcome to attend.

Most meals cost only $5–$10 and are ready in less than 20 minutes.

The Cubs beat the Tigers 21–17.

Jane Decker (1937–1995) was nominated for that award in 1987.

You can indicate that a person is still living by identifying the year of birth followed by an en dash or by using the abbreviation b. to designate the year of birth.

Examples: 

Jeffrey Nelson (1967–) wrote that book.

Jeffrey Nelson (b. 1967) wrote that book.

When using the word from to indicate a range, follow it with the word to, rather than an en dash, and when using the word between, follow it with and, rather than an en dash.

Not: 

He worked here from 1998–2002.

They promised to pay from $15–$20 per hour.

Last summer, my daughter read between 500–550 pages.

Between January–April we got 50 inches of snow.


But: 

He worked here 1998–2002.

Or: 

He worked here from 1998 to 2002.

They promised to pay $15–$20 per hour.

Or: 

Last summer, my daughter read 500–550 pages.

Last summer, my daughter read between 500 and 550 pages.

Or: 

January–April we got 50 inches of snow.

Between January–April we got 50 inches of snow.

University Campuses

Universities that have more than one campus often use an en dash to designate the specific campus being referred to.

Examples: 

He will begin attending Rutgers–Camden next fall.

Did you say that she had graduated from University of Wisconsin–Madison?

I believe his alma mater was University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Open Compounds

The en dash is also used instead of a hyphen when modifying open compounds.

Examples: 

He looked with dread at the file folder–filled drawers.

Many soldiers have reenlisted, despite the uncertainties of this post–Operation Iraqi Freedom era.

I appreciated his attempts at a John Wayne–like accent.

For more information about hyphenation and compound words, see “Hyphens and Compounds.”

Em Dashes

Dashes, also called em dashes (—) to differentiate them from en dashes, indicate a break that is more emphatic than those designated with a comma or colon. Dashes are about the width of two hyphens.

Em dashes are used to:

  • set off a series of items that comes at the beginning of (when the text that follows is a complete sentence) or end of a sentence.
  • set apart explanatory information.
  • set off appositives.
  • set off parenthetical expressions.
  • indicate a sudden change in tone or interruption.
  • set off the last word or phrase of a sentence to emphasize it.

Em dashes can be easily created in Microsoft Word and other word processors by typing two hyphens—without a space—directly after a word and following the hyphens directly with another word, as in this sentence. You can also insert an em dash by selecting it from the Symbols palette or by pressing Alt + 0151. On a Mac, you can insert an em dash by pressing shift + option + hyphen.

Introductory and Concluding Series

A series can be set off by an em dash at the beginning or end of a sentence. A series set off by an em dash at the end of a sentence lends a less formal tone than when a colon is used.

Examples: 

Meetings, meetings, meetings—that was his life these days.

Gin, Hearts, Spades—those are her favorite card games.

We were ready for this new phase in our lives—a new home, new car, and new baby.

He exacted in others the qualities he admired most about himself—ambition, dedication, and precision.

Explanatory Information

An em dash or pair of em dashes is often used to set off explanatory or additional information.

Examples: 

Eagerly we discussed this new development—a development that we hoped would prove very profitable.

My boss—who had just barely heard the bad news—came over in a huff.

Appositives

Use an em dash to set off appositives when commas are used elsewhere in the sentence or when you want to make the appositive more emphatic.

Examples: 

The items they ordered for lunch—sandwiches, salads, and soft drinks—are common fare at meetings like this one.

Ms. Richards—the new employee who works in finance—made the suggestion, and I support her idea.

My manager, Jim—the man has worked here for more than 20 years—is going to be attending the managers’ summit next week.

Parenthetical Expressions

Em dashes can be used to emphasize parenthetical expressions or to facilitate reading when commas are also used in the sentence.

Examples: 

The Nielsens moved from the neighborhood—they had lived here only about three months—last weekend.

When I met Jill—I was immediately impressed by her confidence—at the annual directors’ conference last fall, I offered her a position right away.

The director of the campaign—Mr. Shumway, from Marketing—has some excellent ideas he wishes to discuss in the meeting tomorrow.

Jenifer Dalton—Matt’s supervisor—will be visiting Seattle, Washington, where she grew up.

Change in Tone or Interruption

Dashes can also be used to illustrate a change in tone or a sudden interruption in thought or speech. These uses should generally be reserved for very informal writing.

Examples: 

My job at Kesler and Donahue—can it be possible that I’ve already been here a year?—is the best I’ve ever had.

The new managing director of sales—I think his name is John Barry?—will be meeting with our manager early next week.

“My brother told me that—” he began haltingly.

I’m not sure what to do now that—oh, I can’t even think about it right now.

Emphatic Phrases

Dashes can be used to set off the first or last word or phrase in a sentence for emphasis.

Examples: 

Money—it was all he ever thought about.

Time with family and friends—that was what Jan cared about now.

We have worked together on this project for over three years—and never once has the team complained about the long hours.

Remember to shut off the equipment properly—we don’t want to have a repeat of last Thursday.

Using Em Dashes

As mentioned above, em dashes should not be preceded or followed by spaces, nor should a hyphen (or en dash) with spaces on both sides be used in place of an em dash.

Not: 

Our children – Marta, Lane, and Derrick – all studied music in college.

John Bastian - the mayor of Fairfield - is a wise politician.


But: 

Our children—Marta, Lane, and Derrick—all studied music in college.

John Bastian—the mayor of Fairfield—is a wise politician.

Whenever possible, true dashes should be used. However, if you use a software application that does not have the em dash available, such as Notepad, you can use two hyphens in place of a dash. The hyphens should be right next to each other and, like regular em dashes, they should not be preceded or followed by a space.

Examples: 

The man that you were talking to--I believe his name was Kensington--is an acquaintance of Mr. Wilson.

Trent is the best employee I’ve ever had--I wouldn’t want to lose him.

Though they can be quite effective when used judiciously, em dashes should not be overused, as doing so can make a document seem quite informal. Moreover, overusing em dashes, as with overusing any word or punctuation mark, can become distracting and actually detract from the purpose of the text.


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