When Should You Use a Dash in Writing?

when should you use a dash in your writing

The dash is an oft-overlooked piece of punctuation that can provide impact when used strategically in writing. Knowing the appropriate situations to employ a dash, whether an em dash (—) or an en dash (–), helps writers capitalize on the rhetorical power dashes afford.

This article explains dash types, standard dash uses conveying certain relations, stylistic considerations for effective dash integration, and when to utilize dashes to heighten writing dimensions.

What is a Dash?

A dash is a versatile piece of punctuation distinguished by its lengthier horizontal line, rendering it longer than a hyphen. Dashes separate words, phrases, or clauses to communicate sudden breaks in thought, highlight salient content or convey undisclosed context.

They also introduce tone-setting material and link disparate ideas holding the underlying connections. Though used sparingly to maximize effect, strategic dashes can infuse writing with added dimensions.

What are the Two Types of Dashes?

Two main types of dashes are used in writing – the em dash (—) and the en dash (–). 

The Em Dash (—)

The em dash (—) is the more commonly employed dash in writing. Em dashes garner their name from being as wide as the point size for a capital “M”; hence em dash is in an “M dash.” Slightly longer than the en dash, em dashes conventionally separate clauses offering abrupt narrative shifts, explanatory digressions, or amplifications providing additional background details to primary content flow.

The En Dash (–)

The en dash (–) marks a more limited, understated separation than the elongated em dash. En dashes connect number ranges and indicate tensions between terms like opposites or directional movement between endpoints. Their name derives from comparative width to a lowercase “n,” which is about half the horizontal span of a capital “M,” represented by an em dash.

Uses of an Em Dash

In many writing use cases, employing em dashes proves advantageous over other potential marks in capacities where notation of sudden breaks in thought or interjections adds value. Some common applications include:

Em Dashes Instead of Commas

One of the most common applications involves opting to use an em dash set where, otherwise, a comma pairing might have been selected to supplement parenthetical material warranting distinction from the primary sentence content flow.

For example, The annual citywide education conference — which convened downtown this year, drawing a high volume of attendees — incorporated special breakout sessions on technology application trends in modern classrooms.

Em Dashes Instead of Parentheses

Em dashes eliminate the need for multiple punctuation markings (like opening and closing parentheses) around asides and clarifying statements. The em dash alone can enclose a parenthetical statement, replacing both the opening and closing parentheses. This streamlines the punctuation and improves readability by eliminating multiple marks readers have to interpret. 

For example:

Original: The methodology (which leadership approved last week) is already working effectively.

With em dash: The methodology — approved by leadership last week — is already working effectively.

Em Dashes Instead of Colons

While standard grammar dictates that colons properly precede enumerations or introductions of lists, em dashes contain additional inherent emphasis that proves more fitting when calling attention to climaxing points rather than just sterile listings.

Example: The summit schedule has three significant milestone moments — the opening night kickoff event to set the vision, the highly anticipated dress rehearsal run-through, and finally, the premiere main session.

Em Dashes to Show Omitted Letters

Some writers online use em dashes to imply profanity or insults without having to spell out offensive terms fully. 

Example: The executive lost his temper and called his administrative assistant an “incompetent f—–” during the heated termination meeting.

While this dash abbreviation does not fundamentally change the substance, it avoids unnecessarily exposing audiences to explicit language they may find highly offensive or disturbing. The dashes allow writers to communicate anger or vulgarity without resorting to gratuitous profanity, sparing readers needless discomfort. 

When Should You Use an En Dash?

There are two primary contexts where employing an en dash proves helpful if not outright standard convention:

When You Are Writing Scores

The en dash is commonly used when writing out numeric scores or results.

For example:

The football game ended with a final score of 28–7.

The en dash connects the two numbers, showing the scoring range (28 points to 7 points). This is standard practice in writing sports scores, vote counts, or other numeric ranges.

Between Words That Show Conflict, a Connection, or a Direction

An en dash can also link words that indicate:

  • Conflict: The bitter rivals competed in the match – France vs Italy.
  • Connection: Our Helsinki–Los Angeles flight takes 12 hours.
  • Direction: The troops advanced northeast–southwest across the territory.

In these cases, the en dash links opposing concepts to highlight their tension, movement, or relationship. This allows the dash to clarify connections between disparate ideas.

Things to Keep in Mind When Using Dashes

When incorporating dashes into any genre of writing, follow these guidelines:

Use Sparingly: Avoid overusing dashes. Too many dilutes their ability to accent key ideas. Employ them selectively to maintain maximal punctuation impact.

Link Meaningfully: Only use dashes to link concepts warranting meaningful connection or contrast. Loosely dashed fragments that fail to logically connect risk confusing readers.

Format Properly: Em dashes omit flanking spaces, preserving unity: —text—. Spaces around em dashes break convention, interrupting flow.

Clarify Relations: See that language on both sides of a dash conveys the intended relation being highlighted. Ambiguous links between dashed content disorient readers.

Leveraging too many loosely connected dashes diminishes rhetorical influence and muddles purpose. Careful sparse integration retaining clearly emphasized links sustains engagement and heightens ideas effectively. Follow these guidelines to maximize dash power.

When to Use a Dash Within a Sentence

Here are some guidelines on when to use a dash in a sentence:

  • Dashes allow writers to separate an abrupt shift in thought/logic within a sentence rather than needing to end the first idea and start a new sentence. Example: “We planned to have a picnic—but then heavy rains came in the afternoon.” The dash marks the turn rather than closing the initial phrase, keeping the related ideas connected.
  • Dashes can also emphasize key pieces of information by setting them off, highlighting importance: “The study found only one proven approach for treating this disease—consistent pharmacological intervention.”
  • Dashes can interject clarifying details or background context while keeping the main sentence flow intact: “Many nurses—especially those consistently assigned overnight and varied shift rotations—show a risk of chronic sleep deprivation.”
  • They also introduce a change in tone or language formality within a sentence for effect: “The clinic—while scrupulously adhering to imposed health codes for safety—still aims to provide quality care in a friendly, approachable atmosphere.”

The flexibility of dashes to annotate breaks or note meaning allows writers to incorporate secondary aspects without convoluting sentence structure across multiples. This integrates ideas while managing emphasis. Precision dash placement links concepts while spotlighting key details. 


Dashes act as impactful tools that allow writers to direct the reader’s attention and dictate the pace. Purposefully using em dashes — or more understated en dashes – at key moments enhances vocal control and text dynamism beyond standard punctuation.

Their precise insertion separates ideas linked by meaningful contrasts. Mastering rules and breaking conventions with precisely positioned dashes separated by meaning rather than randomness or indifference adds invaluable vibration to any writing. 

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