Monday, August 1, 2011

Grammar ABCs: D is for Dashes

A dash is an indication of interruption formed by typing two hyphens on your keyboard.

Whether it is a long “em-dash”—or a shorter “en-dash” – is determined by whether you leave a space between the words and the hyphens. If you are using Microsoft Word, the computer should automatically change the hyphens into the dash.

A hint: if you put a dash at the end of a sentence followed by quote marks, the computer does not change the hyphens into the dash, so you can “trick” it by typing a letter after the hyphens and hitting the space bar. Then you backspace and delete that extra letter.

Some writers these days try to use dashes to indicate pauses, instead of using the ellipsis (three dots…) There are two major reasons to use a dash.

1. Dashes should be used when someone’s dialogue is interrupted, such as:
“I told you I was going to—”
John waved his hand to stop me. “You always say that, but you never do it.”

(The ellipsis would be used if the speaker was trailing off: “I always thought I would be…” Jane’s shoulders slumped. John watched her, a lump forming in his throat.)

2. Dashes are also used parenthetically, to set aside a phrase. The woman refused to let us take her picture. She said the black box—the camera—would steal her soul. Or: That Corvette—the red one with the flames painted on the hood—was the one where she’d had her first kiss.

As with a strong spice, used dashes in moderation. Too many can make your writing jumpy or breathy.

Does anyone use dashes in other cases?


A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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  1. Great stuff there, I use em dashes quite a bit myself.

    I just wanted to mention there are also some handy hot-keys for them, it makes it a bit easier than the typing a random letter, space, then deleting (not that that is really difficult).

    Anyway if you hold ctrl and press the - on your number pad (far top-right corner of the keyboard, you'll get a EN Dash. If you hold ctrl+alt and hit that same - on the number pad you'll get an EM Dash.

  2. Thanks for the clarification on the use of the dash and ellipse. So many writers get confused about that. I was going to add the tip about the hot-key, but E.C. beat me to it. I use that all the time now.

  3. Seems the shortcuts/hot keys are almost as much "work" as just backspacing. I've gotten so into the habit of doing that, I'm not sure I'd be able to change.

    I tend to use dashes (the em ones) for action tags in the middle of a line of dialogue. Using commas makes it look like a run-on sentence. Of course, I never know where to put the quote marks, and it seems my editors have different opinions on that as well.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Another trick in Word to change a hyphen to an EN dash at the end of a line is to hit Return, and one backspace.

  5. Dashes are confusing to me. Right now I'm trying to decide if I should use a dash in the title of my new book, Forever Young-Blessing or Curse, which so far, as you can see, I've been doing. I'm wondering if a colon would work better. Originally the book was just going to be Forever Young, but I had to add more to the title so it would not get confused with some other books that had to decide to come out while I was getting mine ready.

    Morgan Mandel

  6. Shouldn't Blessing or Curse also have a question mark at the end? That will be awkward, but it's not clear without really. As to the ellipsis, I've given my brutal thoughts here more than once. No more than three times in a manuscript because it usually just means the author doesn't know what to write. These are your characters. You decide what they should say, and don't leave it to the reader to speculate! That's just weak writing. IMPEO.

  7. I like these computer tricks - I wish I could trick it into writing good copy!

  8. Great, simple explanation for dashes and ellipses. Thanks for the keyboard shortcuts too.

  9. My Word must be old. When I follow E.C.'s directions, I get nothing.

    Very helpful explanation. Thanks.

  10. To turn a double quotation mark around press Control ' Control Shift "

    It's quicker and easier than it appears and once you've done it a few times it becomes as ingrained as pressing Shift for uppercase. My latest books seems to have a lot of interruptions in the dialogue ;-)

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  11. Heidi,

    A big problem with dashes is their versatility, which makes them the go-to punctuation of the uncertain writer. A profusion of em-dashes is often the hallmark of a lack of discrimination and precision in writing. That said, I would add to your list the use of a dash as a less formal alternative to a colon, particularly in dialogue where the appearance of formality and control with a full colon can too easily take the reader out of the flow of the conversation.

    Dani's brutal thoughts about the ellipsis are understandable--they, too, are overused by the untutored writer--but I would take exception to the generalization about authors knowing their characters. For example, a character whose hallmark was a tendency to trail off might demand elliptical excess. Of course, the accomplished writer would find alternatives to avoid monotony.

    "I suppose one could always," he said, trailing off into near inaudibility as usual and leaving the obvious unspoken.

    --Larry "Well-Rounded But Not Elliptical" Constantine

  12. Yes, I use em-dashes, but more sparingly now than in the past. I've been told not to use them in dialogue, but then I saw it effectively used by someone else. Just as with the ellipse, it is no substitute for writing a complete sentence or two. I still use both as a kind of shorthand when writing a first draft.

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  14. Written simply and tastefully. It’s pleasant to read. Thank u.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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