Dishing on Dashes


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

January 22, 2020

Dishing on Dashes

“You might call it the bad boy, or cool girl, of punctuation. A freewheeling scofflaw. A rebel without a clause.”

— Kate Mooney from "The Em Dash Divides"

Here’s the truth about dashes—they are unessential, you can get by writing without them, and some writers despise them.

We’re not among those writers. We dig the dash, and this tip will show you how to add this versatile punctuation to your writing toolkit.

When can I use dashes?

A dash is a horizontal line (—) that signals a pause or a break in meaning. You can use dashes primarily in place of commas, semicolons, colons, or parentheses.

Two dashes—like these—embed an idea within a sentence.

The college campus is among the few places remaining where ideas—even those that are abhorrent to all or most audiences—may be freely expressed.

One dash sets off an idea for emphasis—like this.

Well-written letters and memos help businesses serve clients well—to everyone's benefit.

Notice that you could replace the dashes with commas in the last two examples, and the sentences would still work okay. However, dashes—with their sheer length—force longer pauses and emphasize the idea more than commas would.

Dashes clarify ideas in longer sentences, where embedded material sometimes gets lost in a sea of commas. In Warren Buffett’s 2018 letter to shareholders, he uses dashes to keep complex ideas sorted.

Confusing Commas

What starts as an “innocent” fudge in order to not disappoint “the Street,” say, trade-loading at quarter-end, turning a blind eye to rising insurance losses, or drawing down a “cookie-jar” reserve, can become the first step toward full-fledged fraud.

Decisive Dashes

What starts as an “innocent” fudge in order to not disappoint “the Street” —say, trade-loading at quarter-end, turning a blind eye to rising insurance losses, or drawing down a “cookie-jar” reserve—can become the first step toward full-fledged fraud.

Without the dashes, readers may have a tough time knowing where the explanatory material begins and ends.

Buffett understands that dashes also work to create asides or reiterate ideas.

The final funding source—which again Berkshire possesses to an unusual degree—is deferred income taxes.

When such a mega catastrophe strikes, we will get our share of the losses and they will be big—very big.

The dash in the last example creates a sense of drama.

You can also use a dash to set up a surprise or other unexpected shift in tone, as shown in this quip.

Before you have an argument with your boss, take a good look at both sides—her side and the outside.

Dashes also work to introduce a list or to introduce a statement that explains or summarizes a prior list.

Effective communication has a three-part structure—an opening, a middle, and a closing.

Energy drinks, apps, or pilates—she could successfully market anything.

When should I avoid dashes?

Now that we've professed our dash admiration, we should offer a few words of warning. First, be careful not to overuse dashes, as too many of them can make your writing choppy and difficult to read. As a baseline rule, never use more than two in one sentence.

Second, some old-school grammarians view dashes as too informal for important business documents, though not many people see it that way anymore. Nevertheless, when writing formal business documents, use dashes sparingly and always with your reader in mind.

Insider Knowledge

Learn the nitty-gritty about dashes.

Types of Dashes

Grammar geeks like us will note there are actually two types of dashes—the en dash (–) and the slightly longer em dash (—). The en dash is the width of a lowercase letter n, and the em dash is the width of an uppercase letter M. (Technically, the hyphen is a third type of dash—but that's a topic for another eTip.)

This eTip has focused on the em dash, as it is by far the more commonly used of the two. What function, then, does the shorter en dash serve?

Use an en dash to show a span or range of numbers, dates, or time.

The 2011–14 fiscal years were a boon for business.

Please look specifically at pages 24–28 of the report.

However, unless you are publishing an important document, almost no one will take issue if you use a hyphen in between spans of numbers.

Creating Dashes

Most word processors will automatically create an em dash when you type two hyphens in a row. You can also use these commands to type an em dash in Word:

  • Mac users: option + shift + - (minus/hyphen) key
  • PC users: alt + ctrl + - (minus) key

To create en dashes in Word, you can use these commands:

  • Mac users: option + - (minus/hyphen) key
  • PC users: ctrl + - (minus) key

Spacing Around Dashes

You may have noticed that we did not include a space before or after our em dashes. That choice is stylistic.

Our preferred guide—The Chicago Manual of Style—calls for no spaces. Other style guides — like the AP Stylebook — call for one space before and after each dash.

As for all stylistic toss-ups, consistency is key. Choose the version your business endorses, and stick to it.


Play the Editor!

Review these sentences from leading online business publications. Try rewriting them without em dashes. Does the new sentence feel different? Is the sentence better or worse without the dashes? Scroll down for our commentary.

  1. Amazon lists over 40,000 personal finance books. While I haven’t read each one—contrary to what my kids think, I do (sort of) have a life—I am willing to bet that in the vast majority, the subject of debt gets far less attention than basics like how to invest in stocks and bonds. That’s a mistake.
  2. When nutritionists rank popular diets, the Mediterranean diet often comes out at or near the top. And it's no surprise why—its well-touted health benefits include everything from improved memory function to a longer life.
  3. It is also important to remember that some conflict—at least the right kinds of conflict—can be channeled effectively, and even productively.
  4. BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager, says that it will now make climate change central to its investment considerations. And not just for environmental reasons—but because it believes that climate change is reshaping the world's financial system.

Get More Support

Check out the Write for Business Guide and Courses for more advice on punctuation.


Editor’s Recommendations

  1. Commentary: You could replace the dashes with a pair of commas, though they would not clearly set off the explanatory material from the introductory clause. You would not want to replace the em dashes with parentheses since the explanatory material already contains parentheses. 
  2. Commentary: You could replace the dash with a colon or a period. A colon, like a dash, would draw attention to the end of the sentence. However, the colon feels like a stop sign (Halt: This is important!). The dash works better as a sort of natural continuation of the first idea in the sentence. Then again, you might simply decide to replace the dash with a period and start a new sentence. 
  3. Commentary: You could replace the dashes with commas or parentheses, though dashes do a better job than commas of making the embedded idea stand out. And since the language of the excerpt is conversational, dashes might be more appropriate than formal parentheses. 
  4. Commentary: Replacing the dash with a comma could work quite well in this example; the flow of the writing would not change much at all. However, the dash does change the emphasis of the sentence. Whereas a comma invites the reader to see the ideas on either side as equals, the dash shifts the emphasis to the second clause.