Tricky Tuesday: Dashes


Today I’m going to tell you about the various types of dashes and how to use them. Each one has specific uses and contrary to popular belief, they are not interchangeable. The most common dashes are the em dash (so called because it is about as wide as an uppercase M) and the en dash (which is the approximate width of a lowercase n). Here’s a list of dash types and the correct way to use them:

  1. The en dash is used to indicate spans or differentiation, where “and” or “to” could be used, as in “from 1880-1890” or “the Mason-Dixon line.”
  2. The em dash is used to denote a break in a sentence, set off parenthetical statements, or to set off the source of a quote. For example:
    1. It was a beautiful day — warm, sunny, but not too hot.
    2. The girl gasped and smiled as he presented her with a bouquet of daisies — her favorite flowers — on her birthday.
    3. “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” — Napoleon Bonaparte
  3. The figure dash looks the same as the en dash. It is the width of a single digit and is used to separate the digits in phone numbers, social security numbers, etc. For example, (123)555-4567.
  4. The hyphen also looks the same as the en dash and is used to connect words like hyphenated names and prefixes or suffixes; for example, “pre-Civil War era” or “ex-convict.”
  5. The swung dash, ~, is commonly used to mean “approximately equal to,” especially in dictionaries where a phrase is given to show the context in which a word could be used. For example,

    henceforth (adv.) from this time forth; from now on; “ she will be known as Mrs. Wales”

A few notes on these dashes:

Most computer keyboards don’t actually have a key for the em dash. Microsoft Word will usually autocorrect an en dash to an em dash if you put spaces on either side of it, but not all applications do this. On my blog, I actually went into HTML view and entered the character entity reference —. I’m sure there’s an easier way but I haven’t found it yet. Technically, you can use two en dashes (–) to stand in for the em dash, but I don’t like the way it looks. You can also use an en dash with spaces around it, but I am not happy with that either. That’s not to say that you have to be as picky as I am – do whatever works for you.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, dashes are not interchangeable. Besides the en dash/em dash substitutions I just mentioned, it’s not correct to use the swung dash, for example, even though it might look cute or something. I’ve seen a few people using the swung dash to set off the source of a quote, like:

“If a man does his best, what else is there?”~ General George S. Patton

Sorry, it might look cute to you but it’s not correct.

I hope this has improved your knowledge of the correct way to use a dash. For further information on dashes, go here. Also, I don’t usually like to recommend Wikipedia but they do have a pretty complete and well-researched page on dashes, here.

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