7) The dash

The dash

In a simple sense, the dash is like a stronger version of the comma, providing a more powerful break in the writing than it’s weaker comma sibling. Dashes can replace commas, semi-colons and colons, making them quite versatile. However, there are a number of specific situations which they work quite nicely in. Let’s look at the different situations in which we often use the dash.

1) When to use the dash

1.1 To mark a sudden shift in thought or structure

Because dashes are stronger than commas, they are great for marking a sudden shift in thought, or structure. For example:

My car always decides to break down like this on the most important days – wait a minute, is that Jane holding hands with that man?

Note how the dash helps to express the sudden shift in the writers thought from worrying about his car to worrying about a woman he likes holding the hand of another man. We could use a semi-colon instead of a dash here, as in:

My car always decides to break down like this on the most important day; wait a minute, is that Jane holding hands with that man?

However, the semi-colon doesn’t give that same feeling of a shift in thought that the dash does.

1.2 To mark an afterthought

This is quite similar to 1.1 except the thought that is added on the end is more of an afterthought than a sudden shift. This is to say it is a thought added rather casually onto the end – at least in comparison to the example of the sudden shift in 1.1. For example:

Mark is always trying to humiliate me at school; today he pushed me into a puddle in front of the whole year – another wonderful day of ‘education.’

The sarcastic comment at the end here is a casual afterthought rather than a sudden shift in thought. Moreover, because we have already used a semi-colon after the first clause, the dash allows for some extra variety to prevent a monotonous repetition.

1.3 To set off an expansion

Dashes can also be used to set off an expansion on a thought or statement. For example:

I put down the novel and closed my eyes to think – and thinking was all I could do as the wave of philosophical, political and psychological ideas rushed wildly through my head.

Here the dash is setting off an expansion on the initial independent clause ‘I put down the novel and closed my eyes to think’. We could also have used a comma here, as in:

I put down the novel and closed my eyes to think, and thinking was all I could do as the wave of philosophical, political and psychological ideas rushed wildly through my head.

Note how the dash more strongly links the two clauses than the comma, making it useful when wanting to heavily highlight that an expansion is to follow. In this example, we also have the infinitive ‘to think’, in the first clause, followed by ‘and thinking’, in the second, which also suggests that the second clause is expanding on the first.

1.4 To set off a parenthetical expression

Just like commas and brackets, dashes can also set off parenthetical expressions. For example:

The debate – if you could call it that – ended up being more about their egos than the interesting question of how much our personality is down to genetics, and how much is down to environmental factors.

Notice how the dash makes the parenthetical expression ‘if you could call it that’ stand out more than commas or brackets would? Dashes are also suitable here because this expression is a sudden shift in thought. Let’s look at the same example but with commas:

The debate, if you could call it that, ended up being more about their egos than the interesting question of how much our personality is down to genetics, and how much is down to environmental factors.

Note how the parenthetical expression is much quieter and flows more as part of the sentence now? It feels like a more subtle sarcastic comment now, which is great if that fits the tone that you want to achieve. Overuse of dashes can make the writing too loud, so we should use them sparingly and at the most appropriate moments. Now let’s compare with brackets:

The debate (if you could call it that) ended up being more about their egos than the interesting question of how much our personality is down to genetics, and how much is down to environmental factors.

In this example, the brackets retain the sensation of being distant from the sentence that we get from the dash, but are also less quiet than the dash, making them useful for expressing another temperament.

1.5 To set off a series from an explanation of that series

The dash can also be used to set off a series from an explanation of that series. For example:

John, James, Jane, Jerome, Jade and Jeremy – these are the siblings whose names it is easy to get mixed up.

Here the series ‘John, James, Jane, Jerome, Jade and Jeremy’ is being set off from the explanation ‘these are the siblings whose names it is easy to get mixed up.’

The other way of doing this would be to use a colon, as in:

John, James, Jane, Jerome, Jade and Jeremy: these are the siblings whose names it is easy to get mixed up.

1.6 To set off an expression that causes climax or anti-climax

The dash can also be used to set off an expression that causes suspense, climax or anti-climax.

An example of a dash setting off a statement expressing a climax is:

I finally reached the top of the mountain – and the view was breathtaking.

Here we get the build up with the first clause, then the climax in the second, set off by the dash.

An example of a dash setting off a statement expressing an anti-climax is:

I was looking forward to the gig all day – but it was cancelled.

Here we get the build up with the first clause, then the anti-climatic ending in the second, set off by the dash.

1.7 To mark an interruption

The dash can also be used to mark an interruption.

An example of using the dash to show someone being interrupted while speaking is:

‘What is the point in talking if you are going to keep inter –’

‘You are clearly wrong and you know it.’

Here the first speaker is being interrupted in the middle of a word, signified by the dash.

Another example is where the writer interrupts the speech of one of her characters to add body language:

‘I am just too old for all of this’ – he pursed his lips and shook his head – ‘pointless, egocentric nonsense.’

This is another example of a parenthetical element, but this time it is interrupting the speech to give an extra detail that adds both suspense in the lead up to the end, and emotion to the climax of the comment.

2) Be careful not to overuse the dash

It is very easy to overuse the dash because it can replace commas, semi-colons, colons, and even full stops. However, because the dash is the piece of punctuation which stands out the most of probably any we will look at here, it tends to distract from the writing, as well as making it excessively loud. The job is to think about exactly what it is you want to express, and in what tone you want to express it, then choose the correct mark based on that.

To show what overuse of the dash can do to writing, here is the above but with an overuse of dashes:

It is very easy to overuse the dash because it can replace commas, semi-colons, colons, and even full stops. However – because the dash is the piece of punctuation which stands out the most of probably any we will look at here – it tends to distract from the writing – as well as making it excessively loud – the job is to think about exactly what it is you want to express – and in what tone you want to express it – then choose the correct mark based on that.

That is all for the dash; let’s look at brackets next.

NEXT: 8) Brackets

Posted in Punctuation