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Welcome to this week's writing lesson from

 MyEnglishTeacher.net

You Look Dash-ing!  

Lesson Topic:
Using Dashes (—) in Writing

Take a look at this sentence:
The first thing the lazy employees did when they arrived at work—besides slowly drinking their coffee—was to turn on their computers so the boss would think they were busy at work.

Look at the two dashes (—).  Is there anything else the writer could have used instead of the dashes?  It is possible for the writer to have used commas (,) instead of the dashes.   Since the writer could have used commas, why did she choose to use dashes?  That's a great question!

This leads us to another question: What is a dash and when should we use it?  

The definition of a dash is probably best summed up by the famous grammarian William Strunk Jr:

A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.

(Bold and underlining added)

*from The Elements of Style, fourth edition, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, page 9.  For more information about this book, click here.

Unlike other forms of punctuation, the dash does not have one specific usage.   

book recommendation

cover Grammar Tests and Exercises (with all the answers and explanations!)

Here's help for anyone who has something to say or write but has difficulty doing so. Better Grammar in 30 Minutes features thorough coverage of key grammar skills, clear explanations with a minimum of grammatical terms and an abundance of exercises and activities to help reinforce new skill development. An answer key in the back encourages readers to work at their own pace.  Click here for more information.

In normal circumstances, other punctuation marks (commas, colons, or parentheses) should be used.  However, when you want a phrase or another part of the sentence to have extra emphasis, a dash may be used.  Take a look at this sentence:

There are three things every repairman must have:  a screwdriver, a hammer, and a saw.

In this sentence, a colon has been used.  The writing seems to be formal.  In addition, the writing seems to NOT need any extra emphasis.

Look at the following sentence:

The only thing Tony could do—if he could do anything at all—was to sit and wait for the test results to come in the mail.

In this sentence, dashes are used because it seems informal and the clause inside the dashes needs some emphasis.  The emphasis is added in order to show that Tony could do nothing in this situation.  The writer could have used parentheses, but parentheses may have been too formal for this situation.

When you are not sure if you can use a dash in your writing, remember how William Strunk Jr. defines its usage:

The dash is

1 stronger than a comma
2 less formal than a colon
3 and more relaxed than parentheses.

 

book recommendation

cover 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing

A complete course in the art of writing and an essential reference for any working or would-be writer of any kind. Step-by-step, it shows how to come up with ideas, get past writer's block, create an irresistible opening, develop an effective style, choose powerful words and master grammar, rewrite, and much, much more.  Click here for more information.

Quiz time

Directions: Read the sentences.  Put the
green words in the blue sentence.  Other words may need to be changed.
  main sentence added information answer
1 Julius Caesar's last spoken words were "Et tu Brute?"   this is according to Shakespeare  
2 The first time I went skiing is when I met my husband.  during this time I also broke my leg  
3 In order to ensure a pleasant camping trip, campers must bring various essential items. those items are a lantern, a sleeping bag, food, water, and a flashlight  
4 He was so smart that even encyclopedias couldn't teach him anything.  at least he thought he was smart  
5 When Albert wasn't mean and nasty, he would just ignore you as if you didn't exist on the planet. his meanness, though, was a rarity  

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  main sentence added information answer
1 Julius Caesar's last spoken words were "Et tu Brute?"   this is according to Shakespeare Julius Caesar's last spoken words, according to Shakespeare, were "Et tu Brute?" 

*Commas are used here because this sentence seems too formal for dashes.

2 The first time I went skiing is when I met my husband.  during this time I also broke my leg The first time I went skiing—and the first time I broke my leg— is when I met my husband. 

*Dashes are used here because this sentence seems informal and it requires some emphasis on the humor.

3 In order to ensure a pleasant camping trip, campers must bring various essential items. those items are a lantern, a sleeping bag, food, water, and a flashlight In order to ensure a pleasant camping trip, campers must bring various essential items: a lantern, a sleeping bag, food, water, and a flashlight.

*A colon is used here because this sentence seems too formal for dashes and it has a list of items.

4 He was so smart that even encyclopedias couldn't teach him anything.  at least he thought he was smart He was so smart—at least he thought he was smart—that even encyclopedias couldn't teach him anything. 

*Dashes are used here because this sentence seems informal and it requires some emphasis on the humor and sarcasm. 

5 When Albert wasn't mean and nasty, he would just ignore you as if you didn't exist on the planet. his meanness, though, was a rarity When Albert wasn't mean and nasty—though this was a rarity—he would just ignore you as if you didn't exist on the planet.

*Dashes are used here because this sentence seems informal and it requires some emphasis on the humor and sarcasm.

 

  Rules to Remember!

1

You may ask, "What is the difference between formal and informal?"  That is a good question.  That usually depends on two things: the writer and the audience.  One writer may feel that a sentence is formal whereas another writer may feel it is completely informal.  Each writer is entitled to his/her own opinion.  

Second, the audience may determine whether a sentence is formal or not.  If the writing is for a textbook to be read by university students and professors, the writing should be (in most situations) considered formal.  However, if the writing is a letter to a friend, or perhaps dialogue in a novel, the writing may be considered informal.  

In conclusion, the final judgment must be made by the writer.

2

For more information about about other marks of punctuation, please see our other lessons:

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