How To Use a Dash in Writing

The dash (–) is probably one of the trickier punctuation marks to use in writing.  Dashes are used to provide a pause when reading or to emphasize another thought. Students and writers often misuse it in place of other more appropriate punctuations, such as the comma, the colon and the parentheses, which serve similar functions.  Knowing when and how to properly use the dash can aid in conveying a clear and precise message.

  1. Use the dash to denote a parenthetical thought.  Parenthetical thoughts are mid-sentence inserts, which often clarify or supplement the thought that precedes it.  A dash is often used to separate the parenthetical thought from the main idea it modifies.  For example:  "I went out today – a perfectly clear and bright Sunday – to take a leisurely walk at the park with my dog."  The phrase in between the two dashes describes the thought "today."
  2. Use the dash to signify a sudden change of thought.  Transition words such as however, meanwhile, nevertheless and moreover often signal a change of thought in a series of sentences.  But what if you want to convey an abrupt change of thought in one sentence?  Use the dash instead, as in this example:  "It was to be the best birthday of my life, the day when I can finally have my wish of a dream vacation abroad–or so I thought."  The last phrase quickly negates the sentence that precedes it, effectively facilitated by a dash.
  3. Use the dash to enumerate.  In place of a colon, you can also use a dash to list a number of things.  For example:  "I went to the mall this afternoon and bought my usual summer loot–sun block, shades and swimsuit."
  4. Use the dash to indicate an abrupt pause in dialogue.  In writing conversations, a dash is often used to cut the sentence short to provide suspense, as in the following example: "‘But mom!  I want to go the park today.  You said you'd take me to the–' Johnny paused, noticing a gush of blood running across his mother's neck."
  5. Use the dash to provide correction.  Notice how in spoken communication you tend to correct yourself mid-sentence.  In writing, this is facilitated by a dash, often to provide emphasis on a remark.  For example: "His dancing skills–or utter lack of them–made him the butt of his friend's jokes every single time."
  6. Use the dash to emphasize a pause.  Sometimes, a dash is used to achieve the decline from a climactic tone, often to emphasize a point or an action. For example: "We waited outside his house all day and all night long–but to no avail."

Just like any other punctuation, use the dash sparingly and only when necessary.  As mentioned, dashes signal abrupt pauses in reading, so don't pepper your sentences with it, lest you run the risk of losing the thought you originally wanted to convey.  Likewise, learn how to properly use other punctuations in order to know which ones to use in any given situation.


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