March 16, 2017

Just a dash of this – punctuation for clarity


close-up of hands connecting two puzzle pieces

There are two distinct dashes: the en dash and the em dash. Use them in different ways to separate words, ideas or numbers. In most cases, a dash, whether an en or em, indicates its meaning through the way it’s being used. When used correctly, they’re great tools for ensuring clarity in your copy.

En dash   ­ –

The en dash ( – )  is a double the width of a hyphen ( – ) and half the width of the largest dash, the em dash  ( — ).

En dashes can operate in a number of way, including to represent spans, ranges and links between things. Usually, there’s no space on either side of the en dash because, depending on the context, the en dash is read as ‘to’ or ‘through’.

Use en dashes to:

Stand in for ‘versus’

  • The Footscray–Essendon game.
  • South side–north side debate.

Show date, time & number span

  • We’ll close from 23 May–23 July for repairs.
  • From 10:00am–11:00am, we’ll play.
  • 30–40 people.

Link A to B

  • A Melbourne–Hobart flight.
  • The East–West Link.

Signal equal partnership

  • The US–Australia Free Trade Agreement.

Em dash   —

This is the longest of the punctuation marks ( — ). It’s a commonly neglected punctuation mark, but if you know how to use it, it’s an effective stylistic device.

Use em dashes to:

Set apart parenthetical information

Em dashes can be used as a style preference to set apart parenthetical information. An em dash more clearly separates clauses and highlights the main parts of a sentence you want the reader to focus on. Em dashes usually appear in pairs, expect sometimes in dialogue, and they can either be spaced or unspaced.

  • Spaced em: Jemima waddled down the path — which led to Mr Fox’s house — without a care in the world.
  • Unspaced em: Jemima waddled down the path—which led to Mr Fox’s house—without a care in the world.

Used in place of a colon

Em dashes can also be used as colon alternatives, in which case they act like a harsher version of a comma.

  • Climate change is here — we must act today.

Indicate an abrupt stop (in dialogue)

  • ACTOR #1: I want to—

ACTOR #2: No you don’t.

Creating dashes using Mac or PC

Here are the keyboard shortcuts you need to remember if you want to make dashes on Mac or PC.

Creating en dashes

Mac                     Opt+‘hyphen’

PC                        Ctrl+‘minus’   (make sure you have enabled numlock)

Creating em dashes

Mac                     Opt+Shft+‘hyphen’

PC                        Ctrl+Alt+‘minus’   (make sure you have enabled numlock)

Don’t have the time to fuss over dashes?

Punctuation can be a tedious, though necessary, pursuit. You want your copy, web or print, to be error-free and perfect, but you just don’t have the time.

Contact the Avion team to discuss your upcoming proofreading or copyediting work. We’ll go over everything you need and make sure you’re communicating clearly.

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