Grammar Minute – Dashes Deep Dive

One easy-to-fix punctuation error I see all the time while reading and editing books is incorrectly-used dashes. There are only a few ways to use dashes, and once you choose your style, applying it to your books will become much easier.

First, what are the types of dashes?

The default dash type, located between the 0 and = keys on your keyboard, is the hyphen.

A slightly longer dash is an en-dash, and it looks like this: .

And finally, the longest dash we’ll use is the em-dash: .

There are pretty set times you should use each of these dashes, but there is one style choice: when offsetting phrases, you can either use an en-dash with a space on either side OR an em-dash with no spaces. 

Type of dashWhen to use it
hyphenConnecting words together
en-dashOffsetting phrases (with spaces on either side)
em-dashOffsetting phrases
Interrupting thoughts (abruptly)

Here’s my trick: make a shortcut on your document editor so that you don’t have to go searching for the right type of dash each time. These are already built into Google Docs.

  • three hyphens → em-dash
  • two hyphens → en-dash
  • In Microsoft Word, I also turned OFF the default “replace hyphens with dash” on the AutoFormat tabs (they are inconsistent, and if you have the specific replacements listed, you don’t need it to AutoFormat).

Examples:

Her oft-used bookmark was beginning to get tattered.

Believe it or notand really, I think anyone would believe itI didn’t want to go dancing.

Her favorite book not including her own, of course was written over 50 years ago.

“But I thought you” [] “No, I never got around to that.”

Do not use punctuation after an em-dash, but do include the closing quotation mark.

The good news is that the more you find and fix this error in your writing, the more natural it will become to use consistent punctuation. With that in mind, here’s your opportunity to get more comfortable with using dashes correctly:

Your “homework”:

  1. Set up the shortcuts you want for dashes in your document editor.
  2. Pick one (unedited) book to check and decide whether you prefer en-dashes or em-dashes. 
  3. Search for hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes (3 separate searches). If the type of dash is wrong, fix it!
  4. When searching for dashes, make sure you only have one type in your document (unless you use en-dashes to offset phrases, in which case you should still have em-dashes cutting off dialogue when necessary).
  5. If you’re using en-dashes, check your work! Try searching for en-dashes with a space on either side; you should find the same number of dashes as you did without spaces.
  6. Enjoy the feeling of knowing your book is even better than it was before!

Paige K

What are your grammar hang-ups? Let me know, and you may see them featured in future blog posts.

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