Let’s consider the most versatile piece of punctuation — the dash. That’s right — I’m talking about the horizontal line formed by typing two hyphens in a row. It’s the mark that — unlike commas, periods, semicolons and all the others — doesn’t seem to be subject to any rules.
You can get a sense of the dash’s versatility from the above paragraph, every sentence of which employs at least one of them. As for rules, well, there are some guidelines, but not too many.
First, make the thing the right way. There are a few ways to do it, but generally, on a keyboard, you can do as follows: previous word/no space/two hyphens/no space/following word. Word-processing programs turn the two hyphens into an unbroken line that’s roughly the width of a capital “M” — hence the official name of this punctuation mark, the em-dash. (Some publications, including this newspaper, add spaces around dashes.)
Do not call a hyphen (-) a dash — as, for some reason, computer-support personnel feel compelled to do when they recite into the telephone the characters you are supposed to enter.
Dashes are used for two main purposes. The first is what I call the Pause Dash. It more or less says to the reader, “Right here, I want you to take a breath. What you will read next relates to what you have just read in an interesting way, and I would like to emphasize it.” When using dashes this way, you are allowed only one per sentence.
The second main category is the Parenthetical Dash, in which dashes are deployed in pairs and set off nonessential elements of the sentence. When using dashes this way, limit yourself to one pair per sentence. (More than that produces confusion about exactly what is meant to be set off by the dashes, as in this sentence from a well-known piece of social criticism: “While an ethic of justice proceeds from the premise of equality—that everyone should be treated the same—an ethic of care rests on the premise of nonviolence—that no one should be hurt.”) In addition, make sure dashes are placed in such a way that, if the material within them is removed, the sentence still makes sense.
A third purpose of dashes is to indicate disjointedness. This function shows up in dialogue (“I saw Bill yesterday — wait, is that a helicopter up there? — never mind”), in prose with a stream-of-consciousness quality, and in poetry, and is subject to no rules at all.
The Nobel Laureate of this form of punctuation in poetry was Emily Dickinson. Not only was she inordinately fond of the dash, she wrought impressive variations on it. As one commentator has noted, “Dashes [in her work] are either long or short; sometimes vertical, as if to indicate musical phrasing, and often elongated periods, as if to indicate a slightly different kind of pause.… Dickinson uses dashes musically, but also to create a sense of the indefinite, a different kind of pause, an interruption of thought, to set off a list, as a semi-colon, as parentheses, or to link two thoughts together…”
In Dickinson’s original manuscript of her poem that begins “Before I got my eye put out,” she punctuated the third stanza this way:
All forests—stintless stars–
As much of noon, as I could take–
Between my finite eyes–
Until very recently, Dickinson’s editors tended to convert her dashes into more standard punctuation marks, with distressingly homogenized results. Thus the 1924 edition of her work renders the above stanza this way:
The meadows mine, the mountains mine,—
All forests, stintless stars,
As much of noon as I could take
Between my finite eyes.
At the end of the first line, one can glimpse a comma-dash combo — a punctuational move that was a favorite of the Victorian age and went out of fashion not long after 1924.
Dickinson went a little jiggy with it, admittedly, but in poetry and prose alike, the dash is a freewheelin’ punctuation mark. The Parenthetical Dash can stand in for a pair of commas or parentheses. The Pause Dash can take the place of a period, comma, semicolon — or nothing at all!
So when should you use the dash? Writers who deploy this mark comfortably and adeptly (rather than haphazardly) are conscious of the rhythm and dynamics of a sentence. A well-placed dash adds energy and voice. The period is sometimes referred to as a “full stop,” and I think of the dash as fully a three-quarters stop. It proposes a long pause — slightly longer than a parenthesis, significantly longer than a comma — that in a subtle way calls attention to itself; as the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has remarked, dashes are primarily found in “genres that permit reference to be made to the act of composition, whether the break indicated by the dash is genuine or artful invention…” (In other words, be wary of using them in an international treaty or a scientific paper.)
To get a sense of some of the things a dash can do, take a look at these pairs of quotes.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”:
Thirty: the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.
Thirty—the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.
Henry James, referring to Henry David Thoreau:
He was worse than a provincial, he was parochial.
He was worse than a provincial—he was parochial.
Mark Twain in “Autobiography”:
…life does not consist mainly (or even largely) of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.
…life does not consist mainly—or even largely—of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.
Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar”:
Each person is born to one possession which outvalues all his others: his last breath.
Each person is born to one possession which outvalues all his others—his last breath.
In all cases, both versions make sense and are grammatically correct. But the ones with the dash (the ones the authors actually wrote) seem to live and breathe, while the others just lie there on the page. Like hitting the right combination of buttons in a computer game, typing two hyphens on the keyboard — and thereby making a dash — can give your prose a burst of energy, as if by magic.
Ben Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made” and “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” He blogs for the Chronicle of Higher Education and his own blog, Not One-Off Britishisms. His forthcoming book is “How to Not Write Bad.”
Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing.
| The dash is a handy device, informal and esentially playful, telling you that you're about to take off on a different tack but still in some way connected with the present course only you have to remember that the dash is there, and either put a second dash at the end of the notion to let the reader know that he's back on course, or else end the sentence, as here, with a period.|
__ Lewis Thomas
Use a dash [ ] (or two hyphens [ -- ] on old-fashioned typewriters) or dashes as a super-comma or set of super-commas to set off parenthetical elements, especially when those elements contain internal forms of punctuation:
All four of themBob, Jeffrey, Jason, and Brettdid well in college.
In most word-processors, the dash is created by holding down the option key and hitting the key that has the underline mark above the hyphen. This can vary, though, from program to program. Usually, you get an en dash (see below) with the option + hyphen key, and you get the larger em dash (used more frequently) with option + shift + hyphen keys.
Do not use dashes to set apart material when commas would do the work for you. Usually, there are no spaces between the dash and the letters on either side of a dash, although the dash is frequently shown that way in documents prepared for the World Wide Web and e-mail for typographical and aesthetic reasons (because the WWW authoring and e-mail clients have little control over line-breaks).
In writing dialogue, the dash is used to show breaks in thought and shifts in tone:
"How many times have I asked you not to " Jasion suddenly stopped talking and looked out the window.
"Not to do what?" I prompted.
"Not to Oh heck, I forget!"
A dash is sometimes used to set off concluding lists and explanations in a more informal and abrupt manner than the colon. We seldom see the dash used this way in formal, academic prose.
Modern word processors provide for two kinds of dashes: the regular dash or em dash (which is the same width as the letter "M," ) and the en dash (which is about half the width, the same as the letter "N," ). We use the em dash for most purposes and keep its smaller brother, the en dash, for marking the space between dates in a chronological range: "Kennedy's presidency (19611963) marked an extraordinary era. . . ."; in time: 6:308:45 p.m.; and between numbers and letters in an indexing scheme: table 13C, CT Statute 144A.
The en dash is also used to join compound modifiers made up of elements that are themselves either open compounds (frequently two-word proper nouns) or already hyphenated compounds: the Puerto RicanUnited States collaboration, the New YorkNew Jersey border, post-Darwinianpre-Freudian theorems. The Gregg Reference Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style both recommend using the en dash whenever a compound modifier is combined with a participle as in "a Frank Lloyd Wrightdesigned building," "a White Housebacked proposal," and "a foreign exchangedrelated issue." A string of modifiers in a single compound, though, is joined with hyphens: hilarious, never-to-be-forgotten moments. If you are using an old-fashioned typewriter that cannot create an en dash, you can denote to your typesetter or editor that a hyphen is to be converted to an en dash by using a hyphen and hand-writing the letter "n" above it.
Some reference manuals are urging editors and publishers to get rid of the en dash altogether and to use the em dash exclusively, but en and em are still handy words to know when you're trying to get rid of those extra e's at the end of a Scrabble game. Finally, we use what is called a 3-em dash (or six typewriter hyphens) when we're showing that someone's name or a word has been omitted (perhaps for legal reasons or issues of taste):
Professors ______ and ______ were suspended without pay for their refusal to grade papers.