During my undergrad, we were required to have papers officially proofread by an editor. This editor and I got along swimmingly — I being particularly fond of punctuation and grammar, and he having to commit zero work to my papers. One thing he always praised me for was my regular use of the dash.
During graduate school, one of my editing supervisors constantly attacked my use of the dash, insisting that I was misusing this piece of punctuation. In fact, he was the person guilty of improper dash-use — not I. So, allow me to explain what this line can do.
First of all a dash (–) is not a hyphen (-). A hyphen is used to connect compound words (e.g. starry–eyed or well–known), to connect words divided by a break in the line (e.g. of–ten or dar–ling), to connect compound numbers (e.g. thirty–seven, eighty–two), and so on and so forth. Connecting is what the hyphen does.
Now, a dash comes in two flavors: the en dash and the em dash.
The en dash is…
- the width of a capital N and has no space before or after.
- used to connect destinations (e.g. San Sebastian—Paris flight, New York City—Rochester bus)
- a means for connecting numbers in bibliographies (e.g. pp. 1045—1047, 1914—1984)
- used to indicate time in the future (e.g. Obama presidency (2009— ))
The em dash…
- is the width of a capital M and requires a space before and after.
- shows a break in thought or sentence continuity (e.g. I can’t stay focused — what were you saying?)
- can emphasize a phrase (e.g. That chair is hideous — the most dreadful piece of furniture created by man.)
- is similar to a colon at times (e.g. What should I do — sell my soul?)
- is similar to parentheses at other times (e.g. She thought –– if you could call that thinking — it was time for a new man.)
- separates words for abrupt or stylistic effect (e.g. I will — and I absolutely assure you of this — take all necessary precautions.)
To create a dash on your computer, simply type two hyphens (which, on an American keyboard, is located next to the 0).
Best of luck with the newest addition to your punctuation arsenal — may you use it well!