The dash — a life lesson

Many of us have heard the touching poem, “The Dash,” about living your life to the fullest. I, however, am going to share some tips, not on how to live your life to the fullest, but how to use the actual dash to the fullest.

Three types of dashes will be used in English: the hyphen (most well-known), the en dash (least common), and the em dash (most over used). I shall discuss them according to size, because like many things, with dashes, size does matter (as well as how you use them).

The hyphen is the shortest dash. It looks like this: –

The hyphen serves many purposes. Here are a few examples:

  • Making compound words: color-coded
  • Expressing a date: 5-30-1950
  • Expressing numbers that are not inclusive, such as phone numbers: 555-5555 (does not mean from 555 to 5,555)
  • Dividing words that are broken at the end of a sentence di-vision
  • Adding a prefix: pre-World War One

The en dash, so named because it is the width of a capital N looks like this:–

  • The primary purpose of the en dash is to show that a set of numbers is inclusive, such as 1980–1985. Often a hyphen is used in its place. Technically, it should be an en dash if you mean to include all of the numbers from 1980 to 1985.

Other than that, you can basically live your entire life without typing an en dash. (To type the en dash: ctrl + numeric hyphen.)

The em dash is named as such because it is the width of a capital—can you guess?—M. It is the dash I just used. (To type the em dash: ctrl + alt + numeric hyphen.)

The em dash works to set thoughts aside or to show an abrupt change in thought, as below:

  • Martha—how beautiful she looked today—strolled into the room, completely unaware.
  • The axe—was that blood on the handle?—jutted from the tree, the blade almost completely set within the wood.

The emdash can set off explanatory information as well:

  • GMO—genetically modified organisms—are under study to determine their tie to a host of health issues.

The em dash can be used to show that a collective pronoun refers back to a list of items, as below:

  • Lies, treachery, deceit—these were her daily deeds.

Those are a few of the most common uses of the dash.

As a final side note, for the dash that represents your life, I add this advice: Treat every conversation you have with someone like it will be your last. You don’t want to regret your words if it is.


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