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Note 19 – ‘Dashes’ in writing (Part 1)

For the background to my writing challenge, please read my first blog by clicking the following link –  If you would prefer to dive straight into note 19, then please read on…

Using dashes

According to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, “a dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon and more relaxed than parentheses”.  According to the Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation by John Seely, the dash comes in two sizes.  Today I’m going to blog about the longer dash which is called the ’em-dash’.

Some rules on the em-dash (the longer dash):

  • It usually has a space before and after it (as in examples 1 to 4 below) 
  • It can be used as a pair in the middle of a sentence – read as a side comment – as in example 1 and this sentence. 
  • It marks a sentence break (as in example 2)
  • It can also be used to add additional thoughts (as in example 3)
  • It can be used at the end of a sentence, to indicate an interruption (as in example 5). You may choose not to put a space before the dash here.

(1)  I walked over to the sea – well, ran actually – and felt the cold water on my toes.  

(2) How many times have I told her to put her clothes away – more than ten times this week I think.

(3) Please return all documents to me by Friday – all signed and dated.

(4) Please can you come over here and help me with–

Could I have used ‘brackets or ‘bracketing commas’ instead of dashes in number 1?  Could I have used a comma instead of a dash in examples 2 and 3?  Maybe, but ‘Strunk and White’ suggests only using a dash “when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate”.  Looking at examples 5 and 6 below, I would say that 6 reads better:

(5) I always thought that I would be good at dancing and singing, so I’m going to join a class – Tommy is going to be my teacher for the six week course.

(6) I always thought that I would be good at dancing and singing, so I’m going to join a class.  Tommy is going to be my teacher for the six week course.

My thoughts:  I didn’t know that there was so much to learn about dashes.  I’ve just checked out the section on ‘The Dash’ in Bernard C Lamb’s book The Queen’s English, where he gives more examples and explains about different length dashes.  I think I’ve opened up a good can of worms here; however, so I don’t bombard you with too much information today, I will save that joy for part 2!

Coming up in ‘Dashes in writing (Part 2)’

  • The difference between long and short dashes 
  • How you can create different length dashes using your computer  (– —)
  • Dashes for spans
  • Anything else I discover

Enjoy the rest of the day, wherever you are.

Until tomorrow…


This blog:

My other blog:

My website: (includes first chapter)

Twitter: @madeirasandra  and  @tipsandluxuries

Reference list

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White  The Elements of Style, fiftieth anniversary edition (2009), USA

John Seely  The Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation, USA


About Sandra Madeira

I am a full-time working mum with a passion for writing and inspiring others. Subjects I tend to blog about are life skills, parenting, decluttering, worklife balance, etc. At the moment I am on a decluttering mission creating space in my house, garden and mind. I have challenged myself to do at least ten minutes a day and write about it. Have a good day! Sandra Freelance Writer


3 thoughts on “Note 19 – ‘Dashes’ in writing (Part 1)

  1. Hello,This is good post. Thanks for the support of the post! Only a month into a blog and you’re Freshly Pressed!

    Posted by Solvent Ink | May 20, 2011, 2:22 am
  2. The dash is one of the most misused and least understood pieces of punctuation, in my opinion.

    People don’t seem to know what to do with a sentence like this from your examples: “I walked over to the sea – well, ran actually – and felt the cold water on my toes.” They’ll often forget the second dash. “I walked over to the sea – well, ran actually, and felt the cold water on my toes.”

    A good rule of thumb is to remove the phrase within the dashes and see if the sentence still holds up. “I walked over to the sea and felt the cold water on my toes.”

    The dash can be overused, as well. It should be used sparingly, I believe, or the sentence will sink in a sea of confusion. “He ate a hot dog — wolfing it down with mustard and onions — and then asked for a soda — and threw it in my face.”

    Congratulations on being FPd!

    Posted by Kate McClare | May 22, 2011, 7:48 pm

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