Do you use a dash a lot? What about a hyphen? Many people can’t tell the difference between them. Some people even think they are the same thing. If you are one of them, check this out and master the dash.

Know the kinds of dashes. A dash is noticeably longer than a hyphen. There are several different dashes, but the most commonly used are the en dash (–) and the em dash (—). They are so named because they are the same width as the small letter n and capital letter M, respectively.

  • The figure dash is a special typographical character most often used in phone numbers. Since it’s normally unavailable in word processing, you can simply use a hyphen. (Example: 408‒555‒6792, or use 408-555-6792.)
  • An en dash (–) is most commonly used to indicate a range of numbers. It is longer than a hyphen although a hyphen with spaces surrounding it can be used if a dash is not available. In Microsoft Word, doing this will automatically change the hyphen into an en dash. (Example: August 13–August 18, or pages 29–349. Note that there should be no space around the en dash.)
  • An em dash is most often used to indicate a break in thought or to set an appositive off from the rest of the sentence. It can also be used to show a date when the time frame in question has not yet ended (Example: John Smith, 1976—).

The remainder of this article will address using the em dash.

Identify an independent clause: Before you begin using a dash in a sentence, you must know what an independent clause is. An independent clause is one that can stand on its own because it contains both a subject and a verb, for example:

    • I love pizza.
    • My mom makes me dinner.

Use the em dash: Understanding how to identify an independent clause, you’re ready to begin using a dash.

  • Most commonly, a dash connects an independent clause with another, with a separate or interrupting thought plus a conjunction like or, but, yet, as, for, and after the second dash.
  • The dash works somewhat like parentheses or commas, but it is used where a stronger punctuation is needed. It can connect an independent clause with the ‘interrupting’ thought like so:
    • Independent clause—thought—independent clause.
    • Independent clause—thought.

Put your sentences together: Now practice using a dash. Here are some examples of a dash being used correctly:

  • I’d better have passed my test—it’s ninety percent of my class grade—or I’ll have to go to summer school.
  • Well, I passed the test—granted, I cheated—but I passed!
  • Abby gave me a terrible haircut—and she expected a tip!

Know the other ways to use a dash: Dashes are also used to offset lists placed in the middle of an independent clause, where commas are already used, for example:

  • All of my school work—physics, Academic Decathlon, sociology, and calculus—got washed away when my house was flooded.
Note: If there is only one appositive (which renames a noun), then you should set that off with commas, not dashes, for example:

The best waiter, Alain, can speak three languages.

In dialogue, dashes are used to indicate interrupted speech.

“But I—But you said— … wait, what?” stammered Edna.

Dashes can also be used to emphasize a sentence.

Of course, I’ll sign a prenuptial agreement—as long as it’s in my favor.

Type the dashes in correctly.

  • wikiHow or wikiPedia: Use — to express an em dash. The & symbol (ampersand) lets the system know that a code may be coming up. The ; (semicolon) ends the code. Similarly, use – for an en dash.
  • When using a word processor, such as Microsoft Word, type two hyphens in between the words you wish to separate, leaving no spaces in between the words and the hyphens. The processor will automatically change the two hyphens into an em dash.


  • Wrong: We saw two movies at the theater today—but I didn’t really like either of them.
  • Right: We saw two movies at the theater today—but I didn’t really like either of them.
  • Wrong: My best friend—Sam—went to the doctor with me today.
  • Right use of commas: My best friend, Sam, went to the doctor with me today.
  • Right use of the dash: Sam—even though she fears clinics terribly—went to the doctor with me today.
    Note: The last example using ‘Sam’ is not an appositive; the set off item is a subordinate clause.


  • Use dashes instead of parentheses when the note you are making is more connected to the initial sentence, as parentheses usually indicate a more separate or personal thought. Use dashes, instead of commas, when the note breaks up the flow of a sentence, as commas are typically used for an item that fits in more.
  • When using a dash—in terms of explanations or listings—in a formal paper, it is recommended to rearrange the sentence so that a colon could be used instead; dashes tend to interrupt the sentence, which is not the desired tone of a formal paper.


Article provided by wikiHow, a wiki how-to manual. Please edit this article and find author credits at the original wikiHow article on How to Use a Dash in an English Sentence. All content on wikiHow can be shared under a Creative Commons license.