And now, a matter of punctuation inexplicably close to my heart. Who cares about dashes? Sadly, me. And I’m going to try to get you to care about them, too! We’ll be Sgt. Punctuation’s Lonely Nerds Club Band, playing the dirge for dashes to an unimpressed and dwindling audience.

Now that I’ve set up this entire post as futile, let’s read on! First we’ll define the different types of dashes, then I’ll pretend you’re still reading while I try to convert you to my preferred dash style. Ah, the satisfaction of purposeful work.

Wait, there are different types of dashes?

Why, yes! There are in fact three types of dashes: the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash, all distinct punctuation marks with different purposes. There might actually be more than three, but if so, they’re probably technical marks specific to a certain field, or just plain outdated. The majority of today’s writers only need to know about the three.

If you’re wondering what the what this “en” and “em” gibberish is, those two are named for the approximate typographical widths of the n and m characters, respectively.

Hyphens

Hyphens (-) are the most common type of dash. These short little word joiners are the utilitarian workhorse of the dash troupe, used all day long in writing both fancy and frivolous. There are actually two types of hyphens; you might be more familiar with the hard hyphen.

Hard hyphens are used to join compound words or phrases: self-expression, a two-way street, my oh-god-why-is-there-so-much-maple-syrup moment of realization. Hard hyphens can also separate a prefix from its base word: ex-puppeteer, pro-Kanye, semi-inebriated. And a bit more rarely, hard hyphens can separate a base word from its suffix: pope-elect.

(If you’re wondering about when to include hyphens with prefixes and suffixes and when to omit them, that’s a whole nother blog post. Suffice it to say, there’s many a heated comment thread in some underground grammar forum trading insults over co-worker vs. coworker. Is the hyphen ugly and outdated? Does the single-word version read as “Cow Orker”? What’s a cow orker? Is orking cows even legal? Should I get a lawyer?)

Soft hyphens, by comparison, are just as common if not as widely recognized. Soft hyphens are used to indicate that a word breaks at the end of a line and continues on the next line. If you’ve ever read a print newspaper, you’ve seen soft hyphens all over the place:

The term “soft” refers to the fact the hyphen should be deleted if the entire word falls on one line, while the term “hard” means that the hyphen always has to be included, regardless of whether the word falls on one line or across two lines, because that’s just how the word or phrase is spelled.

En dashes

The en dash (–) is longer than the hyphen and shorter than the em dash. Unnecessary side fact: it also appears very similar to the minus sign, though the two have slight typographical differences. 🤓

En dashes have three common uses. First, they’re used as a substitute for the word “through” in a range of numbers or months.

The fan fiction is on pages 16–38.

The band’s 1981–1985 touring years were full of raucous late-night polka-offs.

The dog pool is open May–August.

For readability’s sake, though, if the range begins with the word “from,” the word “to” should be used between the numbers. And if the range begins with the word “between,” the word “and” should be spelled out.

Ted successfully avoided doing any actual work between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.

We take our vampire patrol duties pretty seriously from sunset to sunrise.

(Note that some style guides recommend just using a hyphen in a range instead of an en dash. Okay look I’m sorry I don’t mean to confuse you I’m just letting you know the reality okay everything is subjective nothing is absolute okay I’m sorry jeez don’t shoot the messenger I’m the messenger don’t shoot me okay jeez.)

Second, en dashes are also used to hyphenate a compound term when one of the term’s elements is two or three words.

post–World War III

a Des Moines–based surfing club

Third, spaced en dashes ( – ) are used to set off an interrupting word or phrase from the surrounding sentence. Maybe you want to emphasize the interrupter, maybe the interrupter explains part of the larger sentence, maybe the interrupter is particularly lengthy, or maybe you want to signal a change in syntax. Here, use a dash! Note, however, that the type of dash you use and how you space it depend on house style; read on for an explanation.

His insistence on Vin Diesel movies – XXX, Babylon A.D., The Pacifier – eventually ended Thursday movie nights.

I try to eat as little oatmeal as possible – I don’t want to support the oat cartel.

On a PC, you can type an en dash using Ctrl + Minus (on the keypad). On a Mac, you can type an en dash using Option + Dash. On a smartphone, you can hold down the hyphen key and see a few different options for dashes.

Em dashes

O beautiful em dash, my favorite of all dashes, why do I love you so! The em dash, according to Amy Einsohn in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, “is the technical term for what most people call ‘a dash.’” It’s used to set off an interrupting word or phrase from the surrounding sentence, like the spaced en dash above.

The interpretive tap dance—the one the producer wants us to cut—is obviously the most important scene in the play.

Brandon doesn’t believe in cucumbers—according to his newsletter, it’s all a conspiracy by Vlasic.

Note how I did not use a space on either side of the em dash. This is my preferred style, but AP style recommends using spaces UGH I KNOW MORE CHOICES. You can choose either a spaced en dash, an em dash, or a spaced em dash to set off your interrupters. More on that below.

(Fun side fact! In general, many people agree that a pair of parentheses de-emphasizes an interrupter, a pair of dashes emphasizes it, and a pair of commas is neutral. Do with this knowledge what you will.)

Em dashes can also be used to mark an interruption in dialogue (“Sometimes when I’m talking I just suddenly forget what I’m—”), or doubled up into a two-em dash to mark a redaction (Professor H—— refused to sponsor the drone club). And em dashes have even more uses, but we’re just going to stick to the most common ones here.

On a PC, you can type an em dash using Ctrl + Alt + Minus (on the keypad). On a Mac, you can type an em dash using Shift + Option + Dash. On a smartphone, you can hold down the hyphen key and see a few different options for dashes.

TL;DR:

  • Hyphens (-) are used to join compound words and phrases.
  • En dashes (–) are used to replace the word “through” when writing a range of numbers, and to hyphenate compound terms when one side of the term has multiple words.
  • En dashes with a space on either side ( – ) are used to set off an interrupting word or phrase from the rest of sentence.
  • Em dashes (—), either with or without spaces on either side, are also used to set off an interrupting word or phrase.

You just gave me like twenty dash options. Which one am I supposed to use?

I feel you. Not only are there a bunch of different dash characters, but each one is styled a bunch of different ways. What’s a typer to do?

While no single style is definitively correct, some are more widely accepted than others. Assuming you don’t have to adhere to a certain style guide or a house style, you can’t really go wrong using an unspaced em dash, a spaced en dash, or a spaced em dash.

Personally, I prefer an unspaced em dash. This is my choice for two reasons: look and function. What looks best is totally a matter of opinion, but what functions best actually involves a little logic.

How your dashes look

To me, the aesthetics of dash styling all come down to white space. You need some white space to signal the interruption, just like you need a word space to clearly distinguish between words, and a space after a period to mark a new sentence. However, too much white space and you end up with “rivers,” or awkwardly large gaps that make the reader pause or jump around. These pauses, however brief, disrupt the process of reading, ultimately impairing comprehension.

I like how an unspaced em dash clearly distinguishes the interrupter without introducing too much white space. Since the em dash is longer than a regular word space and uses white space above and below the character, it’s plenty noticeable. But! The character still runs the entire span between the two words, signaling to the reader, “Don’t pause too long there, friend; this sentence train’s still movin.’”

A spaced en dash is very common—I’ll admit that I’ve used it plenty of times when whatever keyboard I was using at the time made it easier to type than an em dash. I don’t think it looks quite as elegant as an unspaced em dash, but it balances white space well and doesn’t create too large a gap in the text.

A spaced em dash, to me, is wayyy too much white space. The gap is massive! As much as I love an em dash, I don’t know if it can support such a big break in the text. It reminds of that scene at the end of Temple of Doom when they’re going across the rickety rope bridge and Indy cuts it and all the actors in brownface fall into the river and get eaten by crocodiles. So. You know. But the AP Stylebook prefers it, so who knows, I guess it’s just me.

For some more thoughts on white space, see my previous blog post on spacing between sentences.

How your dashes function

Feel free to ignore my opinions on the aesthetic of dashes, but I hope you’ll actually consider how each dash style functions. Ideally, in typesetting, the dash belongs with the previous word; if they can both fit on the same line, great, but if the dash has to move to the next line, that preceding word is going with it. This is for readability, so the reader isn’t momentarily confused when they get to the next line expecting the sentence to continue and are instead met by some zany punctuation and an interrupting phrase.

All of these dashes, spaced or unspaced, are meant to read as a single character. The reader doesn’t see space randomfloatingpunctuationmark space, they just see a dash. Many word processors are hip enough to recognize an unspaced em dash as connected to the preceding word, and they move the whole party down to the next line. But once you introduce a space, most word processors or online publishing platforms register three distinct characters. The dash could get moved to the next line, or, horror of horrors, the final space could get the bump. Moving the dash to next line impairs readability, as explained above. Moving the final space to the next line creates sloppy margin alignment, and possibly gets confused for a new paragraph with a half-assed indent.

It’s true that some online publishing platforms also move unspaced em dashes, my darling and precious unspaced em dashes, to the next line, too. I … um … don’t really have an answer for that. Maybe do better, online publishing platforms? Well, at least there’s no chance of a rogue space at the beginning of a line, so there.

Basically, you want to give the word processor or publishing platform as few chances as possible to break up your dash across lines. Readers expect it to look like a single character. Don’t trip them up with surprise interrupters at the start of a line. You want them to read as smoothly along as possible—simply reading rather than becoming self-aware of the labor of reading, and focusing on your message rather than the mechanics of your writing.

In conclusion, some farewell groveling: In the very least, I beg you, please don’t use a simple unspaced hyphen as a dash. It. Is. So. Confusing. Your readers will think you’re creating a new compound term, and will likely have to re-read the passage multiple times before they understand it was meant to be an interrupting phrase.

X  We finally got to tour the factory basement-Chet was terrified the whole time.

Basement-Chet? Chet is obviously terrified of basements. Don’t make him basement-Chet. That’s just sadistic.

2 thoughts on “Who the hell cares about dashes?

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