Many young writers are either unaware or intimidated by the majesty of the dash. Here at the
Believe it or not, punctuation is not as concrete as you might think! The rules for punctuation have not come down to us from the firmament. Grammarians, or more appropriately pedants, are by their very definition hairsplitters. Above all else they love to disagree with one another. Here at the
Below you'll find a compilation of the rules most of the experts agree on.
First the basics:
1.) The dash is always two hyphens (--).
2.) Never put a space before or after the dash.
Already you're wondering why the dash is sometimes referred to as the super-comma (sorry semicolon). More often than not, the dash can do everything the comma can do--only better. Let's see why.
1. Frequently, the dash is used to add emphasis. Can the comma do that? Yes, but nowhere near as powerfully as the dash can. The dash--due to its uncompromising distancing effect--can set a series of words or items apart from the rest of a sentence.
2. Just think--it can add a pause or mark an abrupt change in a sentence.
3. As alluded to earlier, the dash can also contain a series within a phrase. While experts disagree which punctuation mark is best to use at any given moment--that is, whether to use a comma, semicolon or sometimes a pair of parentheses--we think the dash can usually perform this function effortlessly.
4. Often ignored, but never forgotten, the dash is used in attribution.
"A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parenthesis."--E.B. White, of the Elements of Style and of spider-squashing fame
Finally, while you might have heard some talk about the em dash versus the en dash, we choose to ignore such debates, pointing out that such are the fading quibbles of philosophers drunk with power.