The Red Pen: a Dash of Dashes

“Good Grammar is Sexy” by Thomas Leuthard is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Dashes are sexy.

Okay, maybe not sexy like Chris Hemsworth or a new pair of heels. But among punctuation marks, it’s the only one that leaves me a little breathless. Exclamation points are so obvious, semi-colons are pretentious, question marks too coy—oh, but the possibilities conveyed in that hot little horizontal pause! It’s enough to make a grammarian giddy.

All joking aside, I do love the emotional punch of a good dash. They’re versatile, and they create cadence in your sentence flow. You might incorporate a dash into your writing three different ways.

Ye Olde Dash

Those naughty Georgians and Victorians! They kill me. Historical fiction writers, take note: as our more colorful acronyms, emojis and abbreviations were, alas, unavailable to our buttoned-up ancestors, they sometimes resorted to multiple or elongated dashes for propriety’s sake:

  • “D——n!”

(Clearly the word I meant here is “down”—what were you thinking?)

But dashes could be used as a form of literary redaction, too. Dashes evade just enough full disclosure to prevent defamation suits while still titillating readers. I mean, wouldn’t you want to know what Lord R——rd D——t and Lady E——n W——re were up to in—shire?

En Dash

Somewhere between the hyphen (-) and the em dash (—) is the en dash (–). This handy line indicates a range, span or connection. It’s the verses in a beloved poem, the time your goat yoga class meets, the bookends of a life and your favorite football rivalry:

  • I love lines 9–12 the most.
  • Goat yoga meets 8–9 AM at the YMCA every Saturday.
  • Scott Fitzgerald lived from 1896–1940.
  • I never miss the ASUU of A football game.

Em Dash

The em dash is a little longer and a little more adaptable than its petite counterpart. It masquerades as a comma, a colon and even parentheses, depending on how you use—or abuse—it.

As a comma:

  • My mother, who never met a spice she didn’t like, dumped half a cup of paprika into the sauce.
  • My mother—who never met a spice she didn’t like—dumped half a cup of paprika into the sauce.

As parentheses:

  • Her children (and there were thirteen of them) were the talk of the town.
  • Her children—and there were thirteen of them—were the talk of the town.

As a colon:

  • Blonde hair, blue eyes, red lips: it didn’t take much to turn his head.
  • Blonde hair, blue eyes, red lips—it didn’t take much to turn his head.


Before you use them, remember that em dashes are a little more abrupt and dramatic than their more subtle punctuation partners. Use them like you would seasonings—just a dash at a time.


Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and college level.



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