Dot, Dot, Dash?

NOTE: All these articles are based on British grammar and the techniques I used to help myself, they are by no means definitive.


I suppose I should begin by making clear that when we refer to dashes this doesn’t include hyphens which are for linking words and parts of words and obey different rules to dashes. When we refer to dashes we’re referring to every other instance of a floating line () as a piece of punctuation, whether we’re using it in a similar way to brackets or to indicate a list or to separate dates. The sheer variety of uses can make this tiny piece of punctuation a confusing one.

The easiest use of dashes to remember is in the use of dates; instead of writing:

Victorian Mistress takes place between 1838 and 1842.’

I can write:

 ‘Victorian Mistress takes place 1838 1842.’

Or:

Victorian Mistress (1838 43).’

Another simple use for the dash is to replace words. This is rarely used but occurs regularly in old books, particularly pre-twentieth century, where names/place/curses have been removed. However, when I say curses in the case of these books it tends not to be stronger than ‘damnation’ which was considered pretty strong in the 19th century. As to why names were removed I’m not entirely sure but in these cases the dash tends to be longer than an average dash, sometimes stretching to fit the full length of the word.

The second use of dashes is as an alternative to brackets, as I mentioned in my article on brackets. One of the uses of brackets is to insert extra information into sentences, sometimes this can be multiple sentences but usually it’s only one. Where we’re simply replacing brackets dashes tend to be used only in the middle of a sentence (we’ll get to dashes at the end). So instead of brackets we might have:

Jesse was writing an article on dashes which have many uses but kept wanting to call them hyphens.

Like brackets the information contained between dashes should not be essential to the sentence, by which I mean the sentence should be able to function as a sentence if the dashes are removed. For example:

Jesse was writing an article on dashes but kept wanting to call them hyphens.

Despite having taken my dashed information out I still have a sentence I couldn’t, for instance write my sentence as:

Jesses was writing an article on dashes but kept wanting to call them hyphens.

Because if I took this out I’d have:

Jesse was but kept wanting to call them hyphens.

This begs the question, ‘but I was what?’ because I’ve taken out an essential part of the sentence.

When we use dashes at the end of a sentence they work a little differently from brackets. This is because when we write information between brackets within another sentence the punctuation goes outside of the brackets:

Jesse was writing an article on dashes (she kept wanting to call them hyphens).

The exception to this would be if we need punctuation within the brackets to create grammatical sentences. In this instance the full stop outside the bracket indicates that the full stop is the end of the information within the brackets and the sentence within which the brackets are contained. However, if we do the same with dashes we only use one dash:

Jesse was writing an article on dashes she kept wanting to call them hyphens.

The reason for this is because the punctuation needs to go outside the dashes to show that both pieces of information have ended and having a dash at the end of the sentence can add confusion because it separates the stop from the rest of the sentence:

Jesse was writing and article on dashes – she kept wanting to call them hyphens -.

Leaving out the second dash helps keep the full stop clear, this also makes this form of dash closer to the use of semi-colons.

On the subject of full stops when we use hyphens instead of brackets we don’t use them to add an extra sentence between two other sentences. Dashes are only used within other sentences and, usually, only contain one sentence at most.

The final use of dashes I should mention is in lists after a colon. However, this is not essential and doesn’t have to be used these days. If we did use it then it would look like:

Jesse’s List:-

  • One
  • Two
  • Three
  • Done

For more writing advice see my Advice Page.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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