DASH —  –

The dash must not be confused with the hyphen (-). It comes in two sizes: the em-dash (), the width of a letter ‘m’; and an en-dash (), the width of the letter ‘n’.

In the USA, the em-dash is mostly used, with the en-dash reserved only for numeric series (see rule 5 below). Traditionally, British and Australian publishers preferred the en-dash for all cases, but some style guides now adopt the US convention.

Here are a few examples of how dashes can be used:

  1. To denote a sudden change of thought:
    • Everyone seemed happy – but not so. [UK/Aus. Note there is a space either side of the en-dash.]
    • Everyone seemed happy—but not so. [US. Note that em-dashes do not have spaces.]
    • I was about to comment on her smudged mascara – but thought discretion was wiser. [UK/Aus]
    • I was about to comment on her smudged mascara—but thought discretion was wiser. [US]
       
  2. To indicate a sudden break in a sentence:
    • Everything was going along quite – hey, wait a minute! [UK/Aus]
    • Everything was going along quite—hey, wait a minute! [US]
       
  3. A dash is often used in place of brackets or commas:
    • His golf handicap was low – not as low as he would like it to be – but low enough to be competitive.
    • The third item in the auction—the Renoir—was expected to fetch a small fortune.
       
  4. Two adjacent em-dashes can be used to indicate missing letters in a word (i.e. bowdlerisation – kind of expurgation or censorship):
    • So, where the b——dy hell are you? [A now abandoned advertisement for Australian Tourism.]
    • “Truth never comes into the world but like a b——rd, to the ignominy of him that brought her birth.” [John Milton – English poet (1608–1674).]
       
  5. Only use the en-dash (without spaces) to join inclusive numbers, or text, in a series (i.e. replacing the word ‘to’):
    • pp. 64–76 [pages 64 to 76]
    • Winston Churchill (1874–1965)
    • 10–30°C [that’s 50–86°F for non-metric readers]
    • Open Monday–Friday
    • Winton–Julia Creek rail link
    • The Mason–Dixon Line.
    Note: rules 1–3 can take either the en-dash with a space either side, or the em-dash without spaces—although the em-dash is gradually winning this race! However, the examples above in rule 5 can only use the en-dash without spaces.
  6. Some publishers use the en- or em-dash to signify an unfinished sentence:
    • And then it dawned on him—
    • She looked up, and froze –
    Note: Although this is perfectly acceptable usage, common practice nowadays prefers the use of the ellipsis (...) in these cases.

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