on those pesky dashes as punctuation marks

Es­ti­mated reading time is 9 minutes.

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-dash and the em-dash in my work. 1

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!





I chose these two Bea­tles al­bums (here and below) 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.

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.”




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! 

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

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.”

The horizontalness of the dash

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! And will someone re­mind me to write a piece on the se­rial comma, some­times re­ferred to as the Ox­ford comma, or even the Har­vard comma.



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.

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!

    • 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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