Dashes that separate parts of a sentence
Dashes are used to separate parts of a sentence, especially when there is an abrupt change from one clause to another, or if special emphasis is required when adding information to an existing clause. See the following sentence for an example:
Greek infantry, based on the hoplite—the heavily armed and armoured infantryman organized into tight phalanxes—replaced the horseman as the decisive force on the battlefield. (Lerner 1986, p. 202)
In this example, the dashes are used to set off the separate clause, ‘breaking’ it out of the main sentence. Parentheses (brackets) could also have been used, but would give less importance to the set-apart text.
This type of dash also conveys a sudden change of focus in a sentence, or the addition of an explanation:
The stronger term of various dualist oppositions is in Plato’s work valorized through the use of what Derrida calls a ‘supplement’—here, writing, called a pharmakon, both poison and cure. (duBois 1988, p. 170)
In the above examples, the dashes are unspaced em dashes, which is the style favoured in North American usage. British publishing prefers to use a spaced en dash for the above application:
The first half of the Fields seems to have been reserved for laundresses, to dry their washing, and you would not be popular if you – or your dog – trod on the linen spread out on the grass. (Picard 2003, p. 92)
The sixth edition of the Australian Government Style Manual recommends using an unspaced em dash but the digital edition of the Style Manual, which focuses on digital content, recommends using a spaced en dash for improved readability by screen readers.
Whichever style you use to set off parts of a sentence, an unspaced em dash or a spaced en dash, it is important to be consistent and to follow any relevant style guide.
Dashes should be used sparingly in your writing.
Dashes that join parts of a sentence
En dashes are commonly used to indicate spans of numbers, times and distances:
- pages 54–67
En dashes can attach words to each other, while maintaining the separate identity of each word:
They can link prefixes to more than one following word:
- pre–contact Indigenous Australia
- non–English speaking background
En dashes are used in compound adjectives that are made up of more than one word on either side of the dash:
- an extravagant Bollywood–style wedding
The mathematical symbol for minus (not an en dash) is used as a minus sign. They are used with a space in minus operations:
- 50 − 10 (50 minus 10)
When indicating a negative number, the minus symbol is used without a space:
- −20 degrees (temperature)
How to find the symbols
You can find the symbols for the em dash, en dash and minus sign in Microsoft Word’s Symbol dialog box. The em dash and en dash are under Special Characters, and the minus symbol is in the Mathematical Operators subset under Symbols.
If you have a number pad on your keyboard, you can create an en dash by pressing and holding Alt while entering the numbers 0150. For an em dash, use Alt + 0151. And for the minus sign, use Alt + 8722.
You could also paste the symbols into a ‘style sheet’ and copy them into your document as you need them.
- APSC (Australian Public Service Commission) (2021) Australian Government Style Manual, stylemanual.gov.au
- duBois, P 1988, Sowing the body: Psychoanalysis and ancient representations of women, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Lerner, G 1986, The creation of patriarchy, Oxford University Press, New York.
- Picard, L 2003, Elizabeth’s London: Everyday life in Elizabethan London, Phoenix, London.
- Snooks & Co, 2003, Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Brisbane.
Updated 28 September 2023
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