I suppose it makes me quite the nerd to say that the dash is my favorite punctuation mark—but I just think there’s something very elegant about it. I could have just used an everyday old period in that last sentence, or even a semicolon or comma, but a period and comma are dull and a semicolon always seems a bit academic and divisive while a dash allows thoughts to flow. In this short article, I’ll give a couple of examples of how using a dash will make your own writing flow better.
Many authors I work with like to write in fragments. I personally find fragments frustrating because they break up a thought and make writing harder to read. Usually a dash resolves this problem. For example, I often see authors write sentences like:
“I prefer to take a cab rather than drive myself when I’m not familiar with a location. Especially in a big city like Chicago.”
The problem with that sentence (technically two sentences but the latter is a fragment) is that the period tells me that’s the end of a sentence. And the word “Especially” tells me I’m at the beginning of a dependent clause. As a result, I expect the second sentence to read something like:
“Especially in a big city like Chicago, the traffic is too hectic and scary for me to feel safe driving myself.”
However, the author did not write that sentence, which is a complete though in itself. Instead, they wrote the fragment, and that fragment is rightfully a continuation of the previous thought. Therefore, a dash would make the sentence clearer:
“I prefer to take a cab rather than drive myself when I’m not familiar with a location—especially in a big city like Chicago.”
Admittedly, a comma would have worked also, but the dash gives us more of a pause and shows that the end of the sentence is a bit more like an afterthought than if a comma were used.
I highly encourage authors not to write in fragments. Fragments are just plain hard to read. Make friends with the dash and your readers will be much better able to follow your stream of thought.
The dash is also great for labyrinthine sentences where so much is going on that the reader needs some signposts to help them separate the pertinent information from the extras. Here is an example of such a convoluted sentence:
“In the year 1066, when William the Conqueror, also known as William I of England, after he conquered England, and previously William the Bastard because he was born out of wedlock, and also William of Normandy, because he was the Duke of Normandy, won the Battle of Hastings, he began the Norman dynasty in England.”
Here the dash can be used to separate the main point from all the extra information, as follows:
“In the year 1066, when William the Conqueror—also known as William I of England, after he conquered England, and previously William the Bastard because he was born out of wedlock, and also William of Normandy, because he was the Duke of Normandy—won the Battle of Hastings, he began the Norman dynasty in England.”
To me, the dash here says “to be continued” or “skip what’s between the dashes to get the main point” which is “When William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings, he began the Norman dynasty of England”—everything between “Conqueror” and “won” was separating the sentence’s noun from its verb.
Another option in the above sentence would be to put what’s between the dashes in parentheses, or you might even just cut it all from the sentence and put it in a footnote. However, as I said earlier, the dash has a certain elegance about it that makes it clear the text between the two dashes is important. It doesn’t make that extraneous text feel unimportant like a footnote would do to it, or closed off like parentheses would do. Dashes are also easier to see than parentheses; the reader’s eye can immediately spot the next dash and then read the main sentence, skipping over the extraneous text, thus making an easier transition from subject to verb.
I encourage you to use dashes when too many parenthetical phrases and commas make your sentence confusing or when you catch yourself writing in fragments. In both cases, you will make your sentences much clearer. When it comes to wanting to communicate well, the dash can be one of your best friends.
Tyler R. Tichelaar is the founder of Superior Book Productions (www.SuperiorBookProductions.com), a full service editing, proofreading, and book and website design company that began in 2008. He has a PhD in Literature and has taught at three universities. He is the owner of his own publishing company, Marquette Fiction (www.MarquetteFiction.com), established in 2005, and is the author of twenty fiction and nonfiction books. For twelve years, Tyler served as Vice President (2007-2008) and President (2008-2019) of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association. He is also the former regular guest host of the Authors Access Internet Radio Show (2007-2012) and the former book reviewer for Marquette Monthly (2008-2019). More than anything, he loves wordsmithing.