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How to Insert Dashes in Essay Writing. Basic Rules of Grammar

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Dashes are used in a sentence to determine the natural pause without shifting the tone. Dashes can also substitute parentheses in informal writing. Please note that em dashes and en dashes are not typically reserved for academic writing. In essay writing and business writing, dashes are usually replaced with commas or colons. A space should never be put before or after em dashes and en dashes.

The en dash equals the length of the letter n, while the em dash equals the length of the letter m. The en dash (–) in a sentence implies a range, while the em dash (—) is used to separate parts of the sentence or indicate a pause. The en dash can also act as an em dash. In this case, a space should be put on either side. Writers need to make sure they understand the difference between a hyphen (-) and a dash (–). Hyphens are used to form adjectives and combine words. Hyphens cannot be used to replace a dash.

Em Dash (—)

Em dashes can be used to highlight information that is not important for the meaning of the sentence. Such information can be skipped or omitted without altering the context. In this case, em dashes act as commas with no space used on either side of them. Em dashes can also indicate a sudden change or display hidden information. If the unexpected change or interruption appears in the middle of the text, a second dash needs to be added to denote the end of the clause.

  • ✔️ Last month—if I remember correctly—he was given the promotion.
  • ✔️ That week—and it was July—he agreed to the proposal of the company.

Em dashes can also be used for emphasizing certain parts of the sentence. A closing dash is added to complete the sentence:

  • ✔️ The only way—and I mean it—was giving them what they wanted.
  • ✔️ It was an exception— and it was unbelievable—but the people agreed.

Em dashes can be used to set off a phrase in complex sentences. Below, you will see some of the common examples of using an em dash with complex structures:

  • ✔️ A black sweater—no matter the material, the age, and the price—will improve the outfit.
  • ✔️ This wonderful piece—ornamented with gold, silver, and jade—is going to serve them well.

Em dashes are used to complete the sentence when other punctuation devices are not working. For example, em dashes can act as a replacement of parentheses or commas. Instead of putting multiple commas in a sentence, you can use an em dash as a substitute:

  • ✔️ After a momentary pause, the neighbor touched the paper—or, rather, lifted it.
  • ✔️ After being exposed to such misery, he was relieved to be home—or, rather, in his room.

In some cases, colons and dashes can be interchangeable. However, colons are often considered more formal than em dashes. They are generally used as amplifiers of the clause that appears before the colon. Em dashes are used to emphasize certain parts of the sentence. They can also add a more relaxed tone to the context compared to colons.

⚪ Colon ⚪ Em dash
He knew what he had to buy: gifts and precious souvenirs. He knew what he had to buy—gifts and precious souvenirs.
They were expecting it: chaos and complete disorder. They were expecting it—chaos and complete disorder.
We reveled in these joyous feelings: happiness and light. We reveled in these joyous feelings—happiness and light.
She was aware of the price: two scrolls and a secret. She was aware of the price—two scrolls and a secret.

You can also insert dashes to substitute the words that have been omitted, skipped, or censored for unknown reasons. The censorship may be deliberate or unintentional. If this is the case, two em dashes need to be inserted:

  • ✔️ Mr. —— does not care about our reputation: he is a fool.
  • ✔️ Laura —— was invited as a witness and arrived shortly.
  • ✔️ The letters were obscure: “This was created for my —— kid”.
  • ✔️ A secretary of the state, ——, denied the accusations.

Em dashes can also be used to create strong pauses in a sentence or an academic context. They can have an emphatic meaning, enclose the word, or can be used separately. Some writers insert em dashes to add information as an afterthought. It may or may not affect the overall meaning of the sentence. Em dashes can indicate a shift in tone or an emphatic pause.

En Dash (–)

En dashes are shorter than the em dashes. Although they may share similarities with the em dashes, they have an entirely different role in a sentence. Where em dashes have an emphatic effect, en dashes determine time and numbers. In this context, en dashes act as a substitute for the words “to” and “through”. Instead of using “to” and “through” in a sentence, en dashes are placed for a more structured text:

  • ✔️ The students were given pages 23–26 to read in class.
  • ✔️ The meeting was focused on the goals of 2020–2021.

The en dash is also used to connect two words in a sentence. If you need to link words that have been written with a hyphen, an en dash is going to help you out. Phrases that contain two words can be used as modifiers. An en dash needs to be used to prevent confusion. Dashes help clarify the context of the sentence and render the meaning to the readers.

Wrong❌ Right✔️
The pro Roman pro Greek debates have been going on for ages. The pro-Roman–pro-Greek debates have been going on for ages.
This award winning movie is going to be a success among the audience. This award-winning movie is going to be a success among the audience.

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