This image is from one of Dr. Bailey's books: The Practical Writer (7th edition) Dash

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The dash is my favorite mark. Decades ago, it was uncommon in business writing. But decades ago, business writing was primarily overly formal bureaucratese. Today's Plain English movement fully accredits the dash. It's remarkably handy for making your writing sound more like your talking. Almost all professional writers strive for that quality in their writing.

Visual summary

Visual summary of rules for the dash

Rule 1: Use a dash after a complete sentence to emphasize a word, phrase, or another sentence.

You can use a dash the same way I just showed you to use a colon:

Our new computers will have one huge advantage—speed.

Our new computers will be popular—they're much faster than our old ones.

The dash sets a slightly more informal tone than the colon and may add a touch more emphasis. Now let's look at one other rule.

Rule 2: Use a dash to highlight something in the middle of a sentence.


Our new computers—which are really fast—will be popular.

You could also use commas or parentheses to set off that phrase, couldn't you?

Our new computers, which are really fast, will be popular.

Our new computers (which are really fast) will be popular.

The difference is emphasis. Dashes emphasize the most, commas give standard emphasis, and parentheses are like a whispered aside. So just as italic type emphasizes a little and bold a lot, good writers use punctuation to help their readers see what's especially important in a sentence.

Frequently asked questions about the dash

How do you make a dash?

Can there be space before and after a dash?

Want to see samples of good sentences with a dash?

Next step

Now let's turn to the semicolon.

Copyright 2007 by Edward P. Bailey
(all rights reserved)