One of the most perplexing punctuation marks for writers seems to be the dash. Because dashes are so powerful, many writers don’t use them at all.
The hierarchy (from least to most powerful) of punctuation is comma, parentheses, colon, dash.
Commas are commonly used and there are numerous reasons to use them (but that’s a different blog post).
Parentheses are stronger than commas when showing a reader something is unnecessary (parenthetical) to the writing, but helpful to create understanding. Commas are used for that purpose as well, but there are many other reasons to use commas.
Colons are used when the writer wants to create anticipation. Example: (note the colon creates anticipation that I’ll give you an example).
Dashes are used to get the reader’s attention. They provide a sharper break in the sentence than commas do, and they offer a more dramatic alert that something’s being inserted in the sentence than parentheses do.
Here’s when dashes help your writing.
- Use the dash for emphasis. Example: She had to make a decision regarding her career–and she made it this morning.
- Use the dash to indicate an abrupt change. Example: When they went to the casino, he hated to see her lose–or win–since both kept her gambling.
- Use the dash to summarize. Example: Every argument has two viewpoints–the other person’s and the correct one.
- Use a pair of dashes instead of parentheses to enclose parenthetical information. Example: Her thoughts on dieting–if she thought about it at all–were few and far between.
To complicate matters more, there are two kinds of dashes–the em-dash and the en-dash.
The em-dash is so named because it takes up space equal to the letter m. It is the most commonly used dash and the default of most word processing programs.
The en-dash is so named because it takes up space equal to the letter n. It is used between inclusive numbers.
Do dashes help or hurt your writing? When used correctly, they definitely help. When overused, they hurt.