It’s difficult to find a newspaper article, book, essay, or just about any piece of English writing that doesn’t contain some form of the dash symbol. In English, dashes can signify a number of different meanings. In today’s guide, we will evaluate when to use a dash in a sentence and look at some common examples of dash usage.
What is a dash symbol?
The dash symbol is a form of English punctuation. There are four basic kinds of dashes in the English language:
- Figure Dash (-)
- En Dash (–)
- Em Dash (—)
- Swung Dash (~)
However, one could argue that there are even more types of dashes. Some sources count hyphens and minus symbols as dashes since they have a similar appearance. Hyphens are used to connect related words, while the minus symbol is used to signify subtraction in mathematics. However, for the purposes of linguistics, neither symbol is categorized as a dash.
When to Use a Dash in a Sentence
As previously mentioned, there are four types of dashes in English. Most dash types can function in multiple ways, which can make it even harder to know how or when to use a dash in a sentence. So, let’s look at the basic functions of the figure dash, en dash, em dash, and swung dash.
Figure Dash (-)
The figure dash is the shortest dash in length. It is generally half the length of the standard en dash. A figure dash looks and functions much like a hyphen. You will most often see (and use) the figure dash when writing phone numbers or similar number sequences. For example:
Needless to say, figure dashes are not all that common in standard English writing. However, if you need to write an English sentence with number sequences, you should definitely make use of the figure dash.
En Dash (–)
The en dash (sometimes written as “N Dash”) is the standard form of dash punctuation in terms of size. It is approximately twice as long as the figure dash and half as long as the em dash. However, it has very limited uses. In fact, you can only use the en dash for a few different purposes:
Range of Values
When used for a range of values, the en dash often replaces words like through, between…and or to. For example:
- We will need 10–15 more boxes to fit all of our belongings.
- Alternative: We will need between 10 and 15 boxes to fit all of our belongings.
- The event will take place sometime from August–September.
- Alternative: The event will take place sometime from August to September.
- For your assignment, you will need to read pages 34–55 in your textbook.
- Alternative: For your assignment, you will need to read pages 34 through 55 in your textbook.
When numbers or names illustrate a contrast, you can use the en dash to express this contrast quickly. For example:
- The judges voted 5–4 in support of the new voting rights bill.
- Arsenal beat Liverpool 3–0.
- The Hatfield–McCoy feud lasted for nearly three decades.
In English, a hyphen is typically used to connect two related words, including compound nouns like Coca-Cola or self-confidence. However, if you need to connect a compound word to another word (compound or otherwise), you will have to use the en dash. For example:
- The Pre–World War II era was a complicated time in the United States.
- The Nobel Prize–winning scientist made an incredible acceptance speech.
- The director used a short–focal length lens to get the shot.
As you can see in all of the examples above, figure dashes and em dashes almost never use spaces. In other words, you should not leave an open space on either side of the dash.
Em Dash (—)
The em dash (sometimes written as “M Dash”) is the longest dash in English. It is twice as long as the en dash and has some of the most unique uses. Unlike most other forms of dashes, em dashes can be either open or closed. This means that you can choose to put a space on either side of the dash or not. Most newspapers and publications use closed em dashes, but the AP Style Guide recommends open em dashes.
You can use the em dash to do all of the following:
- Replace a set of parentheses or commas
- Replace a colon
- Signify an abrupt change or long pause
- Express interruptions in speech or thought
- Quote attribution
- Censorship or redaction
- Precede summaries or definitions
Now let’s look at some em dash examples for each of the functions mentioned above:
Replace a Set of Parentheses or Commas
- Nobody knew who — or what — to blame for the accident.
- Alternative: Nobody knew who (or what) to blame for the accident.
- The horse — which had been missing for days — suddenly returned to the pasture.
- Alternative: The horse, which had been missing for days, suddenly returned to the pasture.
Replace a Colon
- The American flag has three colors — red, white, and blue.
- Alternative: The American flag has three colors: red, white, and blue.
- I have three favorite ice cream flavors — chocolate, strawberry, and caramel.
- Alternative: I have three favorite ice cream flavors: chocolate, strawberry, and caramel.
Express an Abrupt Change or Long Pause
*This use of the em dash is typically reserved for situations in which a period is too strong, but a comma is too weak.
- I have never have had a best friend — until you.
- I swear to you — this is the last time I’m helping.
- Nobody wants to eat the food here — even if it freshly made.
Express Interruptions in Speech or Thought
*Closed em dashes are more common when expressing interruptions.
- I meant to tell you that—oh, never mind.
- What the—
- That’s why I was—wait, who are you?
“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
— John Lennon
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
— Dr. Seuss
Censorship or Redaction
- Though the information is classified, the FBI put out a warrant for a man who lives at — — in Memphis.
- What the —!
- Her name is S — — h J — — n.
Precede Summaries or Definitions
- The Great Gatsby — The story of Nick Carraway’s interactions with a millionaire named Jay Gatsby and Gatsby’s desire to reunite with his one true love.
- Em Dash — A long dash used in English punctuation.
Swung Dash (~)
Though not as common as the previous three dashes, the swung dash is still a necessary part of the English language. The Swung dash is most often seen in dictionaries and academic texts. It is used to omit a word that has already been used. For example:
- Glum — looking or feeling sad; “The boy appeared ~ the whole day.”
- Omitted term: glum
- Affable — friendly or easy to converse with; “Everyone agreed that Gatsby was an ~ man.”
- Omitted term: affable
- Mr. Thomas was not at the scene of the crime, therefore ~ cannot be the perpetrator and ~ should not be prosecuted.
- Omitted term: Mr. Thomas
Figuring out when to use a dash in writing can take time. You will need to practice — ideally with the help of an English tutor! However, you’ll find that the more you write, the more comfortable you feel using different kinds of dashes. Soon, you’ll know when to use a dash in a sentence without giving it a second thought!