Dashes – Usage & Examples (With Worksheet)

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Dashes are an excellent way to show how various words, offsets, asides, and other informational phrases are related to one another. However, I find that most people don’t use a dash at all and incorrectly place a hyphen where a dash belongs. I was even guilty of doing this in the past and was shocked to discover the kinds of dashes I could use to make my writing more understandable.

Take a look at the types of dashes you can use and when to use a dash in a sentence below.

Em Dash vs. En Dash

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There are two different types of dashes: the em dash and the en dash. Both are punctuation marks that help provide clarity to your reader.

The em dash (—) is the longest dash and can be used in place of a comma, semi-colon, colon, or parenthesis. The en dash (–) is the shorter dash and is used in sentences to show how words and ideas are related to one another in writing.

What is a Hyphen?

The hyphen (-) is often incorrectly used in place of a dash. The hyphen is used to connect two words together and should not be used in place of either an em or an en dash. Never used a double hyphen to replace an em or en dash. 

How to Use an Em Dash

The em dash is called an “em” because the dash is approximately the width of a typed letter M. It also is known as the em rule. It works to separate words and phrases from the rest of the sentence and is supposed to provide emphasis or drama.

Em Dash Rules

The use of an em dash is to create drama and draw attention to the words it helps offset. It allows your reader to focus on specific words and phrases and replaces confusing commas, semicolons, and parentheses. Take a look at how to use an em dash in a sentence.

Highlight Important Ideas, Summaries, and Dramatic Changes of Thought

  • The final essay was due by noon — and had to be placed in the professor’s mailbox, of all things!
  • The Homecoming Game — disappointingly postponed due to lighting — was finally called off.
  • She wasn’t sure what to think — except she definitely had to rush if she was going to make it on time!

Set Off Long Nonessential Appositives if it is Already Internally Punctuated or to Add Drama

  • The queen was born a commoner — despite her royal heritage, marriage to the king, and charity work in the poor areas of the city — and many people disliked her for it.

Set Off a Nonessential Modifier if it is Already Internally Punctuated or to Add Drama

  • She thought she wasn’t good enough at the tryouts to land the role — her addition was flawless — and was humble in her acceptance of the placement.

Replace Parentheses if it is Long and Internally Punctuated, or to Provide Emphasis

  • Our new school building provided new learning opportunities — luckily, I was able to transfer over to it, build a curriculum, and feel useful again — that the entire county could take advantage of.

Between a List and Independent Clause When the List Comes First

Creating new resources, applicable assessments, and hand on opportunities — are all useful for meaningful, in-class learning and career-building skills.

How to Use an En Dash

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The en dash is called an “en” because the dash is approximately the width of a typed letter N. It also is known as the en rule. It is used to highlight the relationship between dates, numbers, or two words.

En Dash Rules

En dash rules are specific to word relationships. When the en dash is used in a sentence, it emphasizes how words and numbers are connected to one another. Look at these examples:

To Replace the Word Versus

  • The governor – governor candidate debate was well organized and fairly moderated.
  • The cross-country meet was held in the park for the Eagle – Wildcat district championship.

To Replace the Words “to” or “and”

Avoid if the structure includes a “from…to…” or “between…and…” parallel structure.

  • The Detroit – Orlando flight is non-stop, quick, and great for families with young children.
  • The final assessment was an English – History department collaboration.

To Show Number or Date Ranges

  • My order should ship out within 5 – 7 business days.
  • I need between 15 – 23 students to make the class a success.
  • The period between 1900 – 1950 highlights incredible technological growth.

To Highlight Equal Pairings or Partnerships

  • The student – student lesson creations helped teachers see what their classes valued for new learning opportunities.
  • The university – college partnerships provided alignment for class career options.

For Vote Tallies, Scores, or Directions From One Point to Another

  • The Rockhounds season ended 32 – 15.
  • The votes were split 50 – 50.
  • The Midland – Las Vegas Flight was a little over an hour long.

To Replace a Hyphen in Complex Compound Adjectives

  • Pre-Columbus America was almost 100% untouched by European influences.

How to Use a Hyphen

Hyphens actually have many rules associated with their use, and it is important to explain their overall function in writing to help you recognize the difference between dashes and hyphens. The main purpose of a hyphen is to make connections between words.

Hyphen Rule Summary

Hyphens are more widely used than a dash, but they are also often overused or misused as well. They should be used to connect words and numbers to help readers understand the relationships between them. Here is a quick summary of its main uses.

Use With Compound Modifiers, Compound Nouns, Compound Verbs, and Compound Numbers

  • The new school, built to create quality, career-building opportunities, was located next to the main High School Campus.
  • Her brother-in-law was the new principal.
  • She applied a block to her emotions, like a sun-screening against negativity.
  • They expected fifty-two contestants in the E-Sports challenge next weekend.

To Divide Compound Words Containing Double Vowels

  • She had always been semi-independent so moving to a new school was not a big deal.

Use With Prefixes Placed Before Capital Words and the Words Self, All, and Ex

  • The pre-New Year’s gala was much less crowded and more enjoyable than bringing in the New Year with a crowd of strangers.
  • One of the worst feelings was watching someone self-medicate with addictive behaviors.

Use With the Suffixes Elect, Type, Designate, or Like (If the Root has Three or More Syllables)

  • The governor-elect will be sworn in during the January sessions.
  • A commencement-like ceremony was held for students who achieved the highest honors.

Let’s Review

Dashes are a type of punctuation mark that can add clarity to your writing. There are two main forms of dashes you should take advantage of.

Em dashes work to offset and highlight words and phrases, and en dashes provide visual relationships between words and numbers. Hyphens, although more common, only are used to connect words or numbers — not to create relationships or add clarity to your writing.