Writing wrongs #1: to dash or not to dash?

In the first of this series, in which I’ll be doing my best to steer you towards writing awesomeness, I’ll be taking a look at that ol’ family favourite – the dash.

Let me be straight with you. I ain’t talking about hyphens.

Dashes look like this: – (en dash/rule) or — (em dash/rule).
A hyphen is the teeny line you see here in my surname if I married into royalty: Herman-Windsor.

When should I use a dash?

There are four main uses for dashes: for parenthesis, to express range, to show the relationship between two things, and to show omission. So let’s take a look at all four.

Parenthesis – it’s not an essay about my mum

My grandma loved parenthetic dashes, and I can see why. Unlike parentheses (or brackets), which usually contain additional but less crucial information, they’re great for drawing attention to things. You can use two – with spaces either side like this – to highlight a sentence or part of a sentence. You can also throw one in instead of an introductory colon or at the end of an idea for emphasis – they’re really rather neat.

En or em?
People say size matters, but that’s the only real difference between the two dash options. Some British publishers use en dashes for parenthesis – the ones that are longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash – usually with a space either side. While Oxford style and the Americans favour closed-up em dashes—darn, which should I choose?

I prefer en dashes, but each to their own. And remember to be consistent.

I range from short to shorter

Dashes can be used to show a range, standing in place for the word ‘to’. No matter your dash choice (en or em), when you’re showing a range, close those bad boys up.

  • All the cool people are aged 30–40.
  • The best years for fashion were 1982–1987.
  • Bikram yoga: 14.30–15.30

Rookie error alert!!
You can’t say ‘from 25–30’ or ‘between 25–30’. Why? It’s just plain wrong, that’s why. Pick a side. Either you’re saying ‘from 25 to 30’ or ‘between 25 and 30’, and expressing the range with words, or you’re using a dash to express the range. Simples. 

Relationship counselling

Dashes can also show a connection or relationship between words, either meaning ‘to’ or ‘and’. By using a dash instead of a hyphen you’re showing that the first word doesn’t describe the second but that the two are equal.

  • The ‘Herman–Smith theory’ is a theory written by two people: Herman and Smith. While the ‘Herman-Smith theory’ is a theory written by one person with a double-barrelled surname.
  • The Dover–Calais crossing is a journey from Dover to Calais not a junction named ‘Dover-Calais’.
  • The manager–customer relationship is a relationship between two people; the word ‘manager’ is not describing the customer.

I f—king love dashes

Use an em dash to show the omission of a word or part of a w—d. You can also use them to indicate an interruption in speech:

‘Put the bunny back in the—’

If you want any help sorting your en dashes from your em dashes, or any other writing, editing or proofreading assistance, please get in touch.