If you want to master some of the more mysterious elements of grammar, we’re going to have to talk about dashes—yes, those simple horizontal lines that seem to present themselves unannounced, only to stretch your prose further along the page. Did you know there are three—yes, three whole kinds of dashes—in the English language, and that the em dash in particular is historically tied to a raging debate between ardent supporters and detractors?
Let’s talk about the three dashes and how to use them.
How to use the em dash
There’s no better place to start than with the em dash. The most commonly used type of dash—I am shamelessly demonstrating its efficacy right now—is usually a substitute for a comma or parenthesis. In more authoritative terms, Grammarist puts it this way:
Em dashes set apart parenthetical phrases or clauses in a sentence. In this use, em dashes are similar to commas and parentheses, but there are subtle differences….Perhaps a useful way to think of the em dash is as a pause or parenthesis with somewhat more emphasis than a comma and somewhat less than parentheses.
The em dash is often used to wedge a related thought into the middle of a complete sentence. You use an em-dash if a comma would otherwise make your sentence clunkier, and if a parenthetical feels like overkill.
Here’s a few examples of how this works, generally, courtesy of Grammarly:
- While I was shopping—wandering aimlessly up and down the aisles, actually—I ran into our old neighbor.
- There has recently been an increase—though opposed fiercely by many people—in alternative education practices.
- The question words—who, what, when, where, why, and how—are used to retrieve information in English.
But the em dash is even more versatile. You might want to use it when it’s necessary to signal an abrupt shift in tone, or you want to emphasize certain information in a sentence.
Here, the University of Houston, Victoria conveys an example of how the em-dash can indicate a sudden shift of tone:
- I don’t really want to stay at Aunt Susan’s house—you know how messy her house is—because she always wants me to help clean the house.
- “I just want to say that I do not deserve—,” Bonnie ran away as fast as she could before Jason could finish his statement.
When it comes to emphasizing a certain point or thought for dramatic effect, it usually comes at the end of the sentence. Another example, courtesy of UHV:
- Some small businesses will make it through this hard time—but most will not.
To use one on a keyboard, you can simply combine two dashes (—) together. To create an actual em dash on your keyboard, you’ll have to understand some easy shortcuts, but there are plenty of resources out there to coach you through it.
The en dash
If the em dash gave you a headache, rest assured—the en dash is much simpler. The en dash is shorter, and usually used to tie together things that are linked by distance. They are similar—but still different—to hyphens, though outside of formal contexts the two are pretty interchangeable.
As the Chicago Manual of Style explains:
The en dash connects things that are related to each other by distance, as in the May–September issue of a magazine; it’s not a May-September issue, because June, July, and August are also ostensibly included in this range. And in fact en dashes specify any kind of range, which is why they properly appear in indexes when a range of pages is cited (e.g., 147–48)
The en dash is also used to conjoin a prefix or suffix to a compound word, such as “Cajun–style cooking,” or “post–Soviet society.” It also works when denoting time, as in “3pm–4pm.” You can pretty much always get away with using a hyphen in place of the en dash, however, given that their size variance is barely noticeable. And while there’s no direct key for the en dash either, it’s easy enough to learn the shortcuts.
The 3 em dash
An obscure dash, you say? The 3 em dash is is typically used in legal or other classified documents where certain names or details need to be omitted. The dash is intentionally meant to obscure certain things, so people’s identities are protected, for example.
As the UHV writes, “you can either use six hyphens or use an underscore” to create the 3 em dash. Three em dashes are also appropriate, as the name would suggest. Here’s an example, again provided by the University:
The case between ——— and ——— will start tomorrow around 2 p.m.
If you were previously mystified by the uses of these lines on a page, consider yourself now firmly educated regarding all things dash–related.