Resist the Urge to Slap On a Dash
- On December 16, 2015
Thank you so much for your email – we love hearing from you!
That’s the first line from an email I received the other day. The dash in the middle of the sentence should have been a period. (Actually, it looks like a hyphen, but we’ll leave the hyphen/dash thing aside for now.)
Dashes serve specific functions but using them to join two complete sentences is not one of them. Reserve your dash (they also come in pairs) to do the following two things:
Insert additional information or move from the general to the specific.
• He wanted to try something new—namely, skydiving.
• A high-quality question tests for conceptual, not factual, understanding—not “When did the Great Depression occur?” but “What economic, social, and political factors led to the Great Depression?”
Veer off in a different direction or add some extra, or unexpected, emphasis.
• My hair is healthy, soft, and shiny—as long as I don’t get caught in the rain.
• He may have lost the neighbors’ respect, but he gained—well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.
The second example (from The Hobbit) illustrates that when you use a single dash to break into a new thought, you can also break into a new grammatical structure. Here’s another good example of that.
• Warm greetings from Hawaii, where I’m visiting family, working on a new book (it’s about hula—stay tuned!), and planning the next writers’ retreat on Oahu.
The dash story has a few more plot twists:
• There are em dashes and en dashes.
• I’m talking about em dashes in this bulletin.
• Em dashes come in singles and in pairs.
• Em dashes are longer than en dashes.
• En dashes are used to indicate a range in time, dates, and numbers, for example, Please read pages 10 – 15, or to designate a relationship, for example, the mother – daughter bond.
• En dashes are longer than hyphens, which are used in compound words or to indicate breaks in lines of printed material.
If you are interested in a fuller explanation of all of the above, please read my bulletins Dashes Done Right and How to Write Date and Time Ranges, With—or Without—the Dash.