on those pesky dashes as punctuation marks

USE OF THE DASH FOR PUNCTUATION is a lost art in contemporary American English (AmE) and British English (BrE) for many writers and apparently many typesetters. It’s a shame, as a well-placed dash or ten can ease the flow of reading and therefore lead to increased understanding and pleasure. Here I address the way that I—who use the dash with a near promiscuous disregard for the consequences—use both the ‘en’ and the ’em’ dash in my work. 1

The horizontalness of the dash encourages the eye/brain to flow with the sentence. The comma’s verticalness commands a halt in reading.

This could prove enlightening to both of my regular readers here at Neal Umphred Dot Com. First though, there are three things you need to know about me, a former professional writer/editor now filling up space in three websites, before proceeding: 

1) I do not have a degree in any field that qualifies me as an expert on grammar and punctuation, but

2) I use the en- and em-dashes daily (making me what? a compulsive dasher? a serial dashist? a dashing writer?) and here I explain the why and how, and

3) I hyphenate both ‘en-dash’ and ’em-dash’ to make certain that the reader connects the two words!

Regarding the why of using a dash: as stated above, a well-placed dash can be used to ease the flow of reading (that is, I believe that an em-dash is often more conducive to easy reading than a parenthesis) (although I do love a good pair of well curved lines wrapped around my hard copy) and therefore enhance the likelihood of comprehension. 2

Regarding the how of using a dash: it’s more “the where” than the how, and that is explained below.


In the go-to book on English usage in print, William Strunk Jr and E.B. White’s The Elements Of Style, the authors state, “A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.” 

A dash instead of parentheses

In the three paragraphs that open this article, I set off several phrases from their host sentences, two with em-dashes, two with parentheses. The choice was more or less arbitrary but nonetheless effective: some phrases are separated by dashes because it makes it obvious that a separate but essential point is being made.

The dash enhances conversational tone, and it is capable of quite subtle effects.

I used parentheses for the second for two reasons: one, too many em-dashes close together can be confusing, and second, the phrase is descriptive and less easily separated from its noun.

In her massively—and totally unexpected and unprecedented—popular best-seller Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss notes, “The dash is less formal than the semicolon, which makes it more attractive; it enhances conversational tone; and it is capable of quite subtle effects. The main reason people use it, however, is that they know you can’t use it wrongly.”


Whoever would have thought that a book on the fine art of punctuation would top the British bestseller list in the 21st century? But Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves did just that: Profile Books ordered an initial run of 15,000 books for a January 2003 publication date. By the end of the year, they had more than 500,000 copies in print! It then duplicated that achievement in the US. 3

The hyphen is just a short dash

A dash is a mark of punctuation similar to a hyphen, but it differs in length and function. The most common dashes are the en-dash and the em-dash, named for the length of any given typeface’s lower-case n and upper-case M, respectively. Note that the absolute length of both dashes varies from typeface to typeface, although usually not dramatically.

A hyphen and a minus sign are the same length, and both are just short dashes. So then, there are three types of dashes used in modern English punctuation:

(-)    the hyphen or minus sign
(–)   the en-dash
(—)  the em-dash

The typical computer keyboard lacks a dedicated key for the en-dash and em-dashes, though most word processors provide a means for its insertion.

With or without spaces before and after

Placing an empty space before and after an en-dash or em-dash is a matter of taste. Frankly, I find the spaces distasteful and never — ever! — use them! But some computer typefaces (now almost universally incorrectly referred to as fonts) have the spaces built in; if you choose that font, you get the spaces. I use basic Georgia on all my sites and it does not add the spaces.

The most common versions of the dash are the en-dash and the em-dash, named for the length of a typeface’s lower-case n and upper-case M.

Example with spaces: My last Elvis price guide, A Touch Of Gold price guide — which completely changed the way many records were collected — has been out of print for more than twenty years, yet many collectors still prefer it over any book published since!

Example without spaces: My last Elvis price guide, A Touch Of Gold price guide—which completely changed the way many records were collected—has been out of print for more than twenty years, yet many collectors still prefer it over any book published since!

Just typing the first example and looking at them makes my taste buds stand down in revulsion: the em-dashes with the spaces seem to be entities of their own, floating in space with no connection to the words around them. Yuch!

Where I use the en-dash

There are three places where I prefer to use an en-dash: one is to replace a colon for books with titles and sub-titles. I find this is easier to make sense of the title.

Example with colon: My last Elvis book was A Touch Of Gold: Elvis Presley Record & Memorabilia Price Guide, which was published in 1990.

Example with en-dash: My last Elvis book was A Touch Of Gold – Elvis Presley Record & Memorabilia Price Guide, which was published in 1990.

I prefer an en-dash between a quote and the source quoted.

Example: The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts

Usually, an en-dash is used to represent a span or range with numbers used for quantity, dates, or time. Depending on the context in which it is used, the en-dash may mean “to” or “through.” Needless to say, there are no spaces on either side of the dash.

Examples: An excellent introduction to rock and roll’s most fabulous foursome are the two albums, THE BEATLES 1962–1966 and THE BEATLES 1967–1970. The titles should be read as “the Beatles 1962 through 1966” and “the Beatles 1967 through 1970.”



I chose these two albums as examples so I wouldn’t be accused of over-reliance on Elvis for my examples. (Me? Elviscentric? Hah!) I also wanted to use their lovely covers and labels as illustrations. For the covers, the typesetter opted for what appears to be a hyphen rather than the more appropriate en-dash.



For the labels, the typesetter selected an em-dash—and a rather exaggerated em-dash it is! While many typesetters believe in fairly strict rules of usage, I tend to prefer that which works most effectively in communicating my ideas—and which looks most appealing. A sort of wishy-washy approach that works for me.

Where I use the em-dash

I use the em-dash in places where others commonly use parentheses. The parentheses are almost always used as a pair to enclose information that clarifies another word or phrase, or for a phrase or sentence that is used as an aside.

Example: My last Elvis book, A Touch Of Gold (a record collectors price guide), was published in 1990.

One half of a pair of parentheses is a parenthesis; the use of a lone parenthesis is usually kept to separating numbered phrases in a sentence.

Example: I can think of three reasons for using dashes as punctuation: 1) to ease reading, 2) to improve comprehension, and 3) to make the printed page more fun to look at! 

Using dashes with other punctuation marks

A dash paired with a question mark (—?) or an exclamation mark (—!) is downright confusing and as that great Sixties spokesman-for-a-generation Peter Noone, said, she’s a must to avoid. 3

An argument for no dashes at all

No one needs to use and en- or em-dash in their writing. I like them and will continue using them but here is a heartfelt argument against them from Norene Malone. The paragraphs below are excerpted from her article “The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash” for Slate (May 24, 2011)

“Perhaps, in some way, the recent rise of the dash—and this ‘trend’ is just anecdotal observation; I admit I haven’t found a way to crunch the numbers—is a reaction to our attention-deficit-disordered culture, in which we toggle between tabs and ideas and conversations all day.

An explanation is not an excuse, though—as [Philip] Corbett wrote in another sensible harangue against the dash, ‘Sometimes a procession of such punctuation is a hint that a sentence is overstuffed or needs rethinking.’ Why not try for clarity in our writing—if not our lives?

More likely, it’s the lack of hard-and-fast usage rules—even the AP’s guidelines are more suggestions than anything—that makes the dash so popular in our post-sentence-diagramming era. If you want to make your point—directly, with clarity, and memorably—I have some advice you’d do well to consider. Leave the damn em-dash alone.”

A few last words . . .

Consider the dash and the comma from a graphic point of view: the horizontalness of the dash encourages the eye/brain to move freely from left to right with the flow of the sentence. The comma’s verticalness commands a halt in the progress of reading, making the eye/brain take a split second to consider the words within.

Neither of these observations is judgmental: moving quickly or halting briefly are both beneficial to readability. If the online writer and the professional typesetter know this, they have kinetic options that they may not have been aware of before reading this.

“One measure of how good the writing is, is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.” – David Foster Wallace 4

If you need a source better than me (and who doesn’t?) on dashes, then howzabout I quote one of the great figures in American literature: “Now, dash away—dash away—dash away all!”

Finally, this article (“On Those Pesky Dashes As Punctuation Marks”) is a follow-up to an earlier piece, “Where Does The Furshlugginer Comma Go With Quotation Marks?


HEADER IMAGE: Come on, man—it’s Dash! Duh . . .


1   Two things: first, instead of the common abbreviations for American English and British English—AmE (aim?) and BrE (bree?)—why not bastardized contractions: Amerglish and Britglish? (Did I just coin two new words?)

Second, everyone with a website but especially writers and bloggers, are typesetters by default and it is lays in their interest to read a few books on typefaces (fonts) and their sizing, sentence and paragraph length, etc.

2   As is their wont, most Britglish writers refer to the curved-line parentheses as brackets, which in Amerglish refers to a very different bit of punctuation ([ ]).

3   A panda walked into a cafe and ordered a sandwich. He ate the sandwich, then drew a gun and fired two shots into the ceiling. “Why?” asked the confused owner, as the panda walked to the door. “I’m a panda,” the panda said. “Look it up.” The owner pulled out his smartphone and Googles panda: “The panda is a large black-and-white bear-like mammal native to China. Although originally a carnivore, it has adopted to its bamboo environment and now eats shoots and leaves.”

3   “The single most momentous change in twentieth-century punctuation [was] the disappearance of the great dash-hybrids. All three of them—the commash (,—) and the semi-colash (;—) and the colash (:—) (so I name them, because naming makes analysis possible)—are of profound importance to Victorian prose, and all three are now extinct.” (Nicholson Baker, “The History of Punctuation” from The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber. Random House, 1996)

4   I lifted this quote from the article “David Foster Wallace on Why You Should Use a Dictionary, How to Write a Great Opener, and the Measure of Good Writing” on the BrainPickings website.


HEADER IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is of William Strunk Jr, author of The Elements Of Style (1919). His original volume of fifty-three pages was revised and expanded by one of his students, the famous children’s book author E.B. White in 1959. It is one of the best selling and most influential books of it type. One of the categories of this site is named for the two authors: “Strunkandwhiten It!” For more information, refer to “On William Strunk and Elements of Style.”


2 thoughts on “on those pesky dashes as punctuation marks

  1. That is an excellent and succinct summation of, as you say, a pesky issue. I used to use em dashes liberally and have been trying to cut back. So far it hasn’t made me feel any better but it hasn’t made me feel any worse so I’m still in the experimental phase. If withdrawal begins, I can always go back!

    1. While en-dashes can be replaced by a colon for my usage, I believe the em-dash necessary to any and every sane, civilized, printed discourse in the English language.

      Nonetheless, I will fight—to the death, if need be!—your right to disdain those very dashes!

      PS: You been reading my comments on your site about the movies you recommended? We watched the Randolph Scott version of LAST OF THE MOHICANS last night. Wish that the Daniel Day-Lewis version had followed that script closer . . .

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