Dashes are small punctuation marks that appear in writing and indicate pauses, breaks, parenthetical thoughts, and more. There are actually several kinds of dashes in the English language, so today we’ll cover them.
The Em Dash
This is likely the most common dash seen in fiction writing. It’s called an em dash because it’s about the same width as a printed capital letter M. It looks like this:
The em dash is excellent at setting off parenthetical thoughts. Use one before and one after the additional information:
- Albert ran—well, more like stumbled—across the finish line.
- I couldn’t believe—or even comprehend—what I was seeing.
- Jenna slurped down the rest of her coffee—no cream, no sugar—then tossed the empty cup into the trash.
As you can see, the em dashes in these sentences perform a similar function to parentheses. They add greater context to a detail mentioned in the sentence, though they aren’t integral parts of the sentence by themselves. Therefore, they’re set apart with em dashes.
Em dashes can be used alone to indicate a moment of surprise in writing:
- The baby cried and cried and—she stopped. Was someone playing “Baby Shark”?
- The match touched the wick, the fuse ignited—bang! The explosion boomed through the night.
- I smiled, breathed in the fresh air, and—coughed. Where had the smoke come from?
And they can also be used in dialogue to signify an interruption:
- “And then I went to school but school was closed because it was a snow day, so I sledded all the way back home and made myself a hot chocolate, but then the power went out, so I—”
“Okay, okay. You had a rough day. I get it!”
Like any tool, it’s best not to overuse em dashes in our writing. If we do, our prose can become clunky and unsurprising. The old aphorism rings true here: less is more.
The En Dash
Not to be confused with the em dash, the en dash is a smaller dash so named because it’s about the length of a printed capital letter N. It looks like this:
Unlike the em dash, the en dash usually indicates time spans or connects compound thoughts:
- The unofficial Golden Age of rock and roll was roughly 1963–1981.
- From 1918–2004, the Boston Red Sox won zero World Series Championships.
- The Lannister–Tyrell alliance was beneficial for both parties, though it was also tenuous.
- The Jordan–Pippen combo was instrumental in winning six NBA Championships.
En dashes can also be used for parenthetical thoughts:
- The thing I wanted – no, needed – more than anything was pepperoni on my pizza.
Whether to use em dashes or en dashes here is up to personal taste or style guidelines. However, if you do opt for en dashes surrounding parenthetical thoughts, you must always have a space before and after each dash.
The Swung Dash
This is the rarest of dashes used in English. It looks like this:
If you’ve never seen a swung dash before, no worries. They stand for words that have been previously referenced and are therefore clear from context. Swung dashes appear almost exclusively in dictionaries.
For example, let’s pretend we’re creating a usage example for the word “generally.” Here’s the New Oxford American Dictionary definition:
- Generally: [sentence adverb] in most cases
For our example, we’ll use the swung dash to stand in for the word “generally,” since it’s already been established as the word being defined.
- “Though it’s ⁓ warm in Los Angeles, sometimes it’s cold enough to snow.”
Unless you’re writing dictionaries, you might never use this dash. Still, it can’t hurt to be aware of it!