Dashes can be used in many different ways. They are most common in informal writing, however, dashes must be used sparingly: no more than a pair per sentences in informal writing, and no more than a pair per paragraph in formal writing. Use dashes in place of commas, colons or brackets to emphasise information or to indicate a sentence break.
There are two kinds of dashes: the en dash (–) and the em dash (—). The en dash is the width of the letter N, whilst the em dash is the width of the letter M. The em dash is, therefore, twice as longe as the en dash. In some style guides the em dash (—) is set without spaces. However, many newspapers and sources (including this website) prefer to use an en dash (–) set with spaces. Both forms are correct, choose the one you like and stick to it.
Dashes as Commas, Colons, or Brackets
Use dashes in the same way as commas, colons, or brackets. Note that dashes place more emphasis on the information that follows or is contained within them.
- Laura had a great holiday in Fiji – she really liked the beaches.
- There are a few things I can never remember – numbers, names, and something else.
Use dashes instead of brackets to enclose and draw attention to additional information. If you want the information to be more subtle, use brackets.
- My boss – who’s never late – didn’t turn up until midday yesterday.
My boss (who’s never late) didn’t turn up until midday yesterday.
- Mandy – a doctor – works at the the Royal London Hospital.
Mandy (a doctor) works at the the Royal London Hospital.
Depending on the importance attached to it, additional information can be enclosed in brackets, commas or dashes.
Brackets - not important
- Connor (Amy's boyfriend) bought the tickets.
Commas - neutral
- Connor, Amy's boyfriend, bought the tickets.
Dashes - emphasised
- Connor – Amy's boyfriend – bought the tickets.
Connection and Relationship
Use a dash to show the connection or relationship between two things. In this context, the dash is usually set without spaces.
- the fifth annual father–son egg and spoon race
- The McCain–Feingold Act regulates the funding of political campaigns.
- The spying scandal put pressure on Australian–Indonesian relations.
- The London–Paris train leaves almost every hour.
Spaces can be used, however, in order to provide clarity.
- New Hampshire – San Francisco flight
Without the spaces, the sentence could be read as a flight from New Hampshire to San Francisco or a new flight from Hampshire to San Francisco.
Change of Topic/ Subject
Use a dash to show a change of topic within a sentence.
- This is very important – are you listening to me?
Use a dash when the information that follows it is surprising or unexpected.
- We went shopping in London – and met Robbie Williams.
Use a dash to indicate or emphasise additional information and afterthoughts.
- He prayed to his God – to Allah.
- My grandfather will turn 93 this year – at least, I think so.
Repetition and Interuption
Use a dash to show a speaker’s hesitation when a word or syllable is repeated.
- I – I – I don't know.
Use a dash in written dialogue, or direct speech to show interruption.
- “Can you give me –” suddenly, she stopped talking and left the room.
“What do you want?” I asked, but she was gone.
- Maria: So I said to Mayble –
Stranger: Excuse me. Can you tell me where the bus stop is?
Maria: Sure, just go straight on. You can’t miss it.
Use dashes with numbers to show a range or span. The dash represents to or through. Dashes used with numbers are usually set without spaces.
- The winter of 2013–2014 was very cold.
- The information is on pages 15–35.
- The office is open everyday from 9:00am–5:30pm.
Use dashes to report scores and results.
- Manchester United beat Arsenal 3–0 in last Sunday’s match.
- She was voted class president 15–7.