EDITING 101: 20 – Dashes…


Many authors have trouble with dashes. It’s hard to know which one to use and when to use it. There are several different kinds, and they all have different usages.

Qualification: Since I deal with mostly United States fiction, my style guide is The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Other style manuals have different rules for dashes, especially if you live in another area of the world, such as the UK or Australia. This international blog is actually based in the UK, so feel free to ask questions in the comments (letting me know where you’re located) and I’d be happy to give you individualized answers. The following information is taken from the sixteenth edition of CMOS, section 6.75–6.89.

The shortest dash is the hyphen. It takes up just one space and is used to hyphenate words, such as a surface-to-air missile or an Internet-based business.

The next shortest dash is an en dash. It’s called that because in the days of typesetting, it took up the space of the width of a capital letter N. Microsoft Word will give you an automatic en dash while typing if you type a hyphen with a space – on either side of it and keep going. Like that. It may also convert a double hyphen (–) into an en dash, but it doesn’t do it consistently. My example does not show a correct usage in the United States, though. Per CMOS, the en dash is used to connect dates and other numbers. As in, “I worked at TSRA in April –June of 2013.” In this usage, it replaces the word “to.”

The next dash is called an em dash, because it’s the width of a capital letter M. On a machine with Windows, you can insert an em dash by hitting Ctrl+Alt+Minus (on the number pad) or by typing three hyphens (—). An em dash can be used instead of a commas, parentheses, or colons. They are generally used in pairs, although if used at the end of a sentence, then perhaps only one shows, with the period (full stop) ending the sentence. Some examples—quoted from CMOS—are here:

  • My friends—that is, my former friends—ganged up on me. (Encloses a phrase not necessary to the sentence.)

  • Darkness, thunder, a sudden scream—nothing alarmed the child. (Sets off the series of nouns.)

  • Will he—can he—obtain the necessary signatures?” asked Mill. (Indicates a break.)

  • I assure you, we shall never—” Sylvia began, but Mark cut her short. (Indicates an interruption. A trailing off is indicated by an ellipsis.)

  • Only if—heaven forbid!—you lose your passport should you call home. (Encloses an unnecessary phrase with additional punctuation.)

You can see that em dashes and hyphens are the dashes most frequently used in fiction. In US style, none of the dashes have a space either before or after, or on one side but not on the other. These are some incorrect styles I see:

  • My friends – that is, my former friends – ganged up on me. (Space on both sides of an en or em dash.)

  • My friends– that is, my former friends –ganged up on me. (Space only on one side of the en or em dash, generally toward the unnecessary clause.)

Two other, longer dashes are used in non-fiction, so I’m not including them here. They’re called the 2-em and 3-em dashes.

Next week we’ll discuss ‘Plotting’

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This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.





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61 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 20 – Dashes…

  1. Punctuation is fascinating ~ so confusing at times, but so critical. I don’t like the em dash; it makes me feel claustrophobic. I like to see spaces before and after. My solution? I never use it, regardless of the rules of grammar. I like to think of it as poetic license. I didn’t know MS Word would convert a hyphen to an en dash if you kept typing; I thought it had to be a double hyphen. This is good to know. It will save oodles of keystrokes! Thanks, Susan and Chris 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, there are other people who don’t like em dashes. Personally, I don’t like parentheses because I feel as if they interrupt the whole flow/idea of the sentence! 😀

      As for Word converting a hyphen/dash (or even two hyphens/dashes) into an en dash, it doesn’t always work, so knowing how to create one with the keyboard is a good idea just in case! 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This is another great article (remembering your great last article I put in ‘This is’. So I hope you’re proud of me!) I found using spaces with dashes illuminating. To be honest i would have put in spaces on both sides of the sub-clause. Now Ps & 7Qs arn’t the only things I have to watch. Damn, I hate learning new things!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I tend to use the em dash and ellipses quite frequently, and much to my embarrassment, not always correctly. Thanks for clearing this up! I always considered myself proficient in grammar and punctuation, but I am discovering that I am either not as good as I thought, or I’ve forgotten more than I realized. Either way, I know I can ask you! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Rebecca! Yes, you are always welcome to ask me questions!

      There is so much to know/learn in correct English grammar. And it does seem like every time you learn something new (was it new or had I just forgotten it?), something else falls out to make way for it.

      Now try keeping the rules for US, UK, Australian, and Canadian English in your head all at the same time… 😀

      Liked by 1 person


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