Spice Up Your Writing With A Sprinkle Of Dashes

It’s excitable, it’s dramatic, it’s useful it’s – the dash. The dash is a peculiar punctuation mark. Many of its uses are duplicated by the colon, but the dash’s zippy panache gives it an advantage in some cases.

However, the same flair that makes the occasional dash delightful also makes the overused dash dreadful. Consider these tips next time you’re writing in order to spice up your writing with a judicious sprinkle of dashes.

First, a few formatting details, courtesy of my favorite writer’s handbook, Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference. To form a dash, type two hyphens together without spaces. You can also use an “em dash” function if your computer has one. To be rigorously accurate, I must tell you that Hacker states that dashes should not have spaces before or after them (291). This is a rule that I regularly violate. I just think it looks weird.

Dashes and I have had a checkered relationship. At a certain point in college, I found that my ideas were calling for more complex sentences. However, the specifics of grammar and punctuation were a bit hazy, and I wasn’t in the habit of poring over handbooks in those days. Unfortunately for my professors, I churned out run-on sentences in every variety I could muster. And when I was feeling particularly dramatic, which was often, I used dashes where semicolons and colons should have gone.

As my education progressed, I did begin to pore over writing handbooks. I was aghast when I looked at my early undergraduate papers: the dashese my writing both grammatically problematic and stylistically immature. Ugh. I learned the rules governing semicolon and colon use and discarded the dash.

As I progressed through the course of study for my PhD, I met another dash addict – my dissertation advisor. He was constantly crossing out my dutiful colons and semicolons and inserting dashes with his red pen. Inserting dashes! After ignoring his emendations for about a year, I returned to my writing handbooks to master the rules of the dash. Today, the dash and I have a cautious, though cordial, relationship. I hope this post will set you on the path to healthy dash usage as well.

Now, on to the fun stuff: using dashes. There are three basic instances in which you might choose to use a dash.

1. To emphasize and set off non-essential material.

A writer can also set off non-essential material with commas. However, the dash adds a bit more drama. Compare the following:

Each decision a writer makes, from the examples he or she uses to the tone he or she conveys, should be calculated with the reader’s needs in mind.

Each decision a writer makes – from the examples he or she uses to the tone he or she conveys – should be calculated with the reader’s needs in mind.

2. To delineate an appositive that has internal commas.

An appositive, according to Hacker, is “a noun or noun phrase that renames a nearby noun” (290). These, too, are usually set off by commas. However, some appositives have commas within them. In cases like those, how would the reader know which commas serve to set off the appositive and which commas serve to separate items in a list? The first example below shows how nonsensical such a sentence can be:

All of my favorite ice cream flavors, chocolate, mint chip, and strawberry, make great milkshakes.

Since this sentence has two different layers of pauses, it needs two different punctuation marks for differentiation. Compare this sentence:

All of my favorite ice cream flavors – chocolate, mint chip, and strawberry – make great milkshakes.

3. To get the reader ready for something.

Again, this is where the dash’s drama comes in. A dash can mimic a colon’s function: to introduce elaborations or specifics following a general statement. For example, in the previous sentence the word “function” is general. The material after the colon is more specific, elaborating on what I meant by “function.” The dash can do the same thing, but it is more dramatic and showy than a colon is.

You can also use a dash the way I did in the first sentence. (It’s excitable, it’s dramatic, it’s useful, it’s – the dash.) The dash here is designed to signal a shift. Again, drama is the dash’s signature.

All of this drama can be overdone easily. If you don’t believe me, I’ll send you a copy of one of my atrocious, dash-tastic undergraduate essays. J But a few dashes can be, well, dashing.

I hope these tips have helped you to think about analysis in a more specific way. If you like what you have read, I hope you’ll become a regular reader by subscribing to Writing Power’s RSS feed.

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4 Responses to Spice Up Your Writing With A Sprinkle Of Dashes

  1. LivSimpl says:

    A random observation and question. I noticed you use two spaces after a sentence. I was under the impression that wasn’t necessary anymore. Is that correct? Or is it optional?

  2. loren says:

    Hi, David — great observation! I would expect nothing less from you. :)

    I use two spaces in my blog because I want a bit of extra separation between sentences to make it easier on my readers’ eyes. It’s hard enough to read articles online without having the text crammed together.

    But you’re right. Although this is a matter of debate, the prevailing fashion is to use one space. Two spaces is optional.


  3. Hah – this piece was made for me – as you can see – I really overuse my dashes – but so far no one has called me out on it. A fantastic read, one that I will have to take into consideration in my next post. Gah, I’m going to check my last post to count how many dashes I put in.

    Thanks for all the work you put in 😉

  4. loren says:

    Hi, Albert,

    It’s amazing how addictive they can be, isn’t it? I’m so glad you enjoyed it!


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