Dashes

You have two types of dash at your disposal: the en dash and the em dash.

 

Experienced writers know that you don't have to draw a little top hat and monocle on a sentence to make it more sophisticated and dashing. Instead, you can take the literal route and master the dash.

First, you should know that all dashes aren't created equal. The en dash (–) is a little bit wider than a hyphen (-), or about as broad as an uppercase N. The em dash (—) is a little bit wider than the en dash, or about as roomy as an uppercase M.

Don't worry; you don't actually have to print out and laminate an N and an M to measure your dashes. You can if you want to, we guess, but we'd recommend making a quick Internet search for your operating system's keyboard shortcuts instead. That will give you simple directions for calling up en and em dashes whenever your dashing little heart desires.

 

Types of dashes

Here's what the accommodating en dash is used for:

1. To indicate a range of time, numbers, or dates.

The anti-drug assembly for grades 11–12 will take place in the gym from 2:00–3:00 p.m.

2. To show conflict.

At the ice cream shop where Rosario works, the chocolate–vanilla debate takes place on a daily basis.

3. To show connection.

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have made several movies together, and many film fans agree that the Burton–Depp collaboration has yielded some of cinema's most memorable characters.

4. To show direction.

While Interstate 4 technically runs east–west through central Florida, a quick look at a map show that it really runs more north–south.

5. Sports scores.

After the Bruins beat the Penguins 3–1, my friend called her cousin in Pittsburgh to gloat.

An em dash marks the dramatic entrance of another related element in the sentence, or an authoritative sectioning off of nonessential sentence elements.

Basically, commas, colons, and parentheses walk onto the stage peacefully. Em dashes run onto the stage with spirit fingers blazing. Because they like to make a scene, only use em dashes when you purposefully want to interrupt the flow of a statement and prepare the reader for something important, or if you want to firmly fence off supplementary segments from the rest of the sentence.

Examples:

"All chickenburgers are created equal—at least that's what I thought before I saw Food, Inc., a documentary about America's corporate controlled food industry."

In this example, the em dash is used to show a sudden change in thought. That is, the speaker originally didn't put much thought into where their food comes from. After they saw the documentary, their view changed. Their eating habits probably did, too.

"My boss—the most fashionable woman I've ever seen—broke both of her arms in a bar fight in Tijuana last weekend."

Although we have several questions about the speaker's boss after reading this sentence, the fact that she has an exceptional sense of style isn't essential to understanding it, so em dashes are used to quarantine that chunk of nonessential information.