The dash–according to MS Word– is that dashing long line that appears by its own volition after you type two hyphens (–) and press the return key – as I have done there, a few words ago. It is also a punctuation mark that many people either forget it exists or, because they have no idea how to use it, pretend to forget it exists – guess in what category I fall!
You can see in the previous paragraph three examples of the several functions a dash can have. In the first sentence, I used the first pair of dashes (fucsia) to emphasize the origin of the definition I was introducing–not the same one the Oxford dictionary would probably use. Towards the end of that same sentence, the dash (green) introduced an example. With the dash in the second sentence (blue), I interrupted the lesson to interact closer with you, breaking the flow of my speech. Other functions of dashes involve adding explanations and definitions, contrasts, lists, and appositives – this last one, I found, means renaming or identifying another noun or pronoun for another noun or pronoun that is next to it. What would you say the use of this last dash was?
Are you sure? Think about it for a moment longer.
All right. All right. I know.
It was an easy one. Still, I’ll clarify it just in case you are lying to me: I used it to introduce a definition of an appositive. In this same paragraph, I also showed the use of the dash for presenting a contrast. Can you find it? (Hint: red)
I know you are an observant reader, so I am sure you saw that sometimes I use only one dash, and at other times I use two. There is a logical reason for this: when you are using a dash in the middle of a sentence, you are–in a way–interrupting what you are saying in order to add some new information. Once you are finished with the addition, you need to let the reader know that you are now going back to the main sentence. The best way to do it is to close with a second dash. When the dash is at the end of the sentence, it is different. Here, it is the period the one that closes both ideas: the one from the main sentence, and the one you introduced with the dash.
I hope that for your next piece of writing–novel, short story, research paper, poem, etc.– you remember that the dash exists. I also hope that, after this brief explanation, you feel comfortable using this underused punctuation mark. Although, I do want to clarify, as Howard warns in Writing Matters, that the use of too many dashes in close proximity could be harmful to your text’s health.
Note: This piece of writing was a result of an exercise that my professor asked me to do for a class. I thought I would share it with you, because it is never bad to keep grammar use fresh. When you reach the revision part of your story, grammar is a useful and powerful tool to have at hand.