How to Use Dashes in Your Writing

Molly McCowan Punctuation 5 Comments

The incorrect use of dashes is one thing that most copyeditors correct in almost any writer’s work. I’m here to clear up the confusion and teach you some simple keyboard shortcuts to make beautiful dashes that aren’t just a pair of hyphens masquerading as the real thing.

Em Dashes

Em dashes (—) are the width of a lowercase “m.” They are used to indicate added emphasis, a pause, or a change of thought.

Em dashes are the “wait for it” of punctuation, creating a pause that’s conversational in tone, but still draws your eye to the next sentence or phrase.

Em dashes can have the same effect as a colon, but with more of an artistic spin, and less of an abrupt stop. (They’re also used when attributing a quote.)

  • Example: “I’ve been looking for a girl like you—not you, but a girl like you.” —Groucho Marx

Em dashes can also be used instead of commas when the writer wants to set a section of the sentence apart.

  • Example: “Everything I saw in the park that day—the playful squirrels, the green grass, the circus jugglers—reminded me of him.”

En Dashes

En dashes (–) are the width of a lowercase “n.” They express a range, and are typically used between dates, data sets, names, etc.

A good rule of thumb is that if you can say “to” in the space that the en dash is taking up, it makes sense. (Note: in running copy like in the second example below, most editors prefer to write out the “to.”)

  • Example: 1995–1998
  • Example: Men ages 70–90 are more likely to make inappropriate jokes about women in front of your girlfriend.
  • Example: The Denver–Brisbane flight was not a pleasant one: why do I always get seated next to the screaming baby?

To Space, or Not to Space

Every style guide except the AP’s (silly Associated Press) states that there should be no spaces around em dashes, but many writers prefer to use spaces anyway. Ultimately it’s up to you (and your style guide of choice), but my personal preference is not to use spaces.

  • Example: “The soup—with its excessive use of cinnamon and ginger—tasted like a gingerbread man gone bad.”

En dashes are also used without flanking spaces.

  • Example: February–May

Keyboard Shortcuts

ALT/OPTION + HYPHEN = en dash (–)

ALT/OPTION + SHIFT + HYPHEN = em dash (—)

In Microsoft Word, if you type a word followed by two hyphens, add another word and hit the spacebar, it should automatically reformat into an em dash.

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Do you use dashes in your writing? Do you love them or loathe them? Tell me in the comments!

P.S. When in doubt, remember Frida.

Molly McCowan
Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor from Fort Collins, Colorado. As the Lead Word Nerd at Inkbot Editing, it's her job to make you look good.
  • Luke Bivans

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  • Thank you—an unforgettable image!
    But one bone to pick: Some editor colleagues have been discussing this. We would always change the en dash in a numerical range to ‘to’ in running text, though we would leave it in parenthetical text or in citations (many style guides advocate this):
    1) From 1995 to 1998, I wore rainbow suspenders to school every Friday.
    2) I went to school at Big Blue School (1995–1998). (Sorry, that’s not the greatest example; even this date range could more easily be read in running text, and thus with ‘to’ instead of the en dash.)

    • Thank you for that insight, Lenore! I agree 100%. “To” is much easier to read in running text, and it would seem awkward to have the en dash there instead. Thanks so much for chiming in!

  • Eric

    As an editor who often does layout work, I disagree with your prohibition of spacing em dashes. If the software being used won’t break lines before or after dashes, unsightly gaps and irregularities can appear. So I often put spaces fore and aft. Ideally they’d be thin spaces (thinner than normal), but that would depend on whether they allow line breaks, and on how polished the piece should look.

    That’s for dashes that separate (ems in this post). Dashes that link (ens here) should not have surrounding spaces; line breaks for them may have to be inserted manually.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Eric! I’ve often wondered how dashes are navigated during final layout. I’m also noticing more and more em dashes with spaces around them in the digital world, and I do see how the spaces can help the eye flow more naturally when reading online text.

      I still love the fluidity of an em dash without spaces in printed text, however! 🙂