Q. When do I use a dash in text?
A. A dash usually replaces a comma, semicolon, colon, or parentheses. When used this way, it creates an EMPHATIC separation of words. Since a dash is versatile, people tend to use it to punctuate almost any break in a sentence. Don’t. It’s best used for EFFECT. And experts say we should never type a single hyphen to represent a “double” dash (em dash).
Author Amy Einsohn says, “The dash is best reserved for special effects: to prepare readers for a punchline or a U-turn.” The Chicago Manual of Style says, “A dash or a pair of dashes is used to denote a sudden break in thought that causes an abrupt change in sentence structure.” Professor Charles Darling suggests thinking of dashes as “super commas.”
There are four kinds of dashes: em, en, two-em, and three-em.
Generally, if you see the word “dash,” the writer means em dash. Most word processing programs give us access to em dashes (the width of a capital “m”). If you don’t have software that has this special character, type two hyphens with no spaces between the words on either side and the dashes, or do one of the following:
Keyboard stroke: If you use Windows, hold down the Alt key and type 0151 on the keypad.
To make this autocorrect in Word for Windows:
Go to Menu bar / Tools / click AutoCorrect. In the “Replace” box, type two hyphens. In the “With” box, press Alt + 0151 to create an em-dash, and then click Add. Close.
If you use a Mac and Word, try typing two hyphens. Word should automatically convert them into an em-dash. If not, try this:
Go to Menu bar / Tools / click AutoCorrect. In the “Replace” box, type two hyphens. In the “With” box, press OPTION+SHIFT+- (hyphen) to create an em-dash, and then click Add. Close.
Regardless of whether you use an “em” dash or two hyphens, don’t leave any space before or after the dash.
Use an “en” dash to connect numbers in a range. It means “up to and including” when used like this: “During the years 1998-1999,” and “…people aged 55-63.”
If you don’t have access to an “en” dash, use a hyphen. If you use Windows, hold down the Alt key and type 0150 on the keypad.
Used to indicate that letters are missing from a word. If you don’t have access to this dash, type four consecutive hyphens with no spaces between. If letters are missing from within a word, leave no space before or after the two-em dash. If the letters are missing at the end of a word, leave no space before it, but leave one space after, unless punctuation is required. Examples:
* Mrs. Birming—- chose to remain anonymous.
* The diagnosis was made by Dr. Boy—-.
Note: You can type a two-em dash by using the keystrokes one after the other with no space between them.
Used to indicate that an entire word has been left out or needs to be provided. If you don’t have the character for the three-em dash, type six consecutive hyphens. You can type a three-em dash by using the keystrokes three times with no space between them.
Because this dash represents a complete word, leave a space before and after unless punctuation is needed.
Three em-dashes are generally also used in bibliographies to represent an author’s name in subsequent entries, once the author’s full name has been given.
NOTE: These rules aren’t written on stone. Many documents you’ll create do not require using the various dashes. But when you’re typing manuscripts, print newsletters, special reports, or anything that requires good typography, use them as described above. If nothing else sticks, make sure you always use two hyphens when you can’t create an em dash. You’ll find more information on dashes at:
Guide to Grammar and Writing
The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition ISBN 0-226-10403-6
The Copyeditor’s Handbook, Amy Einsohn ISBN 0-520-21835-3
The Gregg Reference Manual, Ninth Edition ISBN 0-02-804046-5