The dash is a very useful mark which has been greatly overworked by
careless writers. It is very easy to make in manuscript and serves as a
convenient cover for the writer's ignorance of what point should
properly be used.
The conspicuousness of the dash makes it a very useful mark for guiding
the eye of the reader to the unity of the sentence. It is particularly
useful in legal pleadings where there is much repetition of statement
and great elaboration of detail. In such cases commas, semicolons, and
even parentheses are so multiplied that the relation of the clauses is
lost sight of. The confusion thus arising may often be cleared up by
intelligent use of the dash.
The dash is sometimes used to connect a side heading with the text that
follows, or to connect the end of that text with the name of the writer.
A RULE FOR PEACE.--If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live
peaceably with all men.--_St. Paul._
The dash is sometimes used in catalogue work as a ditto mark.
DE VINNE, THEODORE LOW. Historic Printing Types. New York, 1886.
----The Invention of Printing. Francis Hart & Co., New York, 1878.
----Plain Printing Types. Oswald Publishing Co., New York, 1914.
French printers use the dash in printing dialogue as a partial
substitute for quotation marks. Quotation marks are placed at the
beginning and end of the dialogue and a dash precedes each speech. This
form is used even if the dialogue is extended over many pages.
_Rules for the Use of the Dash_
1. To mark abrupt changes in sentiment and in construction.
Have you ever heard--but how should you hear?
2. To mark pauses and repetitions used for dramatic or rhetorical
They make a desert, and call it--peace.
Thou, great Anna, whom three states obey,
Who sometimes counsel takes--and sometimes tea.
3. To express in one sentence great contrariety of action or emotion or
to increase the speed of the discourse by a succession of snappy
She starts--she moves--she seems to feel
The thrill of life along her keel.
In this connection DeVinne gives the following excellent example from
Nature instantly ebbed again;--the film returned to its place;--the
pulse fluttered,--stopped,--went on,--throbbed,--stopped
again,--moved,--stopped,--Shall I go on?--No.
Attention may be called to Sterne's use of the semicolon and the comma
with the dash, a use now obsolete except in rare cases.
4. To separate the repetition or different amplifications of the same
The infinite importance of what he has to do--the goading conviction
that it must be done--the dreadful combination in his mind of both
the necessity and the incapacity--the despair of crowding the
concerns of an age into a moment--the impossibility of beginning a
repentance which should have been completed--of setting about a
peace which should have been concluded--of suing for a pardon which
should have been obtained--all these complicated concerns
intolerably augment the sufferings of the victims.
5. At the end of a series of phrases which depend upon a concluding
Railroads and steamships, factories and warehouses, wealth and
luxury--these are not civilization.
6. When a sentence is abruptly terminated.
If I thought he said it I would--
7. To precede expressions which are added to an apparently completed
sentence, but which refer to some previous part of the sentence.
He wondered what the foreman would say--he had a way of saying the
8. To connect extreme dates in time indication.
The war of 1861--1865. The war of 1861-1865.
9. To define verse references in the Bible or page references in books.
Matt. v: 1--11. Matt. v: 1-11.
See pp. 50--53. See pp. 50-53.
NOTE. In instances such as given in the two preceding rules the en dash
may sometimes serve if the em dash appears too conspicuous.
10. A dash preceded by a colon is sometimes used before a long quotation
forming a new paragraph. In other cases no point need accompany the
The dash is sometimes used as a substitute for commas. Writers on the
subject say that this use occurs when the connection between the
parenthetical clause and the context is closer than would be indicated
by commas. The distinction, if real, is difficult to see. It would be
better if none but the most experienced writers attempted the use of the
dash in this way.
Dashes are often used instead of marks of parenthesis. It is better to
let each mark do its own work.
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