The dash is one of the most versatile and fundamental tools in the English language, used to introduce a verbal pause, modify the meaning of a word, or connect two words. It can range from a simple hyphen to a full-fledged word, and even a sentence!
What is a Dash?
A dash is a punctuation mark that functions similarly to the colon, semicolon, or parentheses. The dash can be used to separate two independent clauses, modify the meaning of a word, or even end a sentence!
The dash can appear anywhere in a sentence, ranging from the beginning to the end, and even within a word! For example, the phrase, “He took the garbage out,” consists of a noun, a verb, and a dash in between. This indicates that the action of taking the garbage out happened at some point in the past, and it is continuing at the moment the speaker is writing. The dash can also connect words or phrases that would otherwise be separated by a pause or full stop.
Different Forms of Dashes
Depending on the circumstances surrounding its usage, a dash can take on a number of forms. These forms can range from a simple hyphen to a full stop or period followed by an independent clause. In creative writing, a dash is often used to indicate a change in tone or a sudden, dramatic shift in the narrative.
A hyphen is the most commonly used dash in the English language. When used in writing, it most often appears between two words, or one word and a suffix, and it is used to indicate that those words are directly connected, or parallel. The two words or phrases are called the hyphenated words.
A hyphen can also be used to indicate the omission of a letter or syllable, which is an important principle in poetic spelling. For example, the word “wonder” can be spelled “wonderful” or “wonder-ful.” The second form is technically not an “O” but it functions the same way: it joins two words into one, creating a blend of the two.
Dashes in Poetry
One of the primary usages of the dash in English is in poetic writing, where it is used to construct elaborate, multi-word units called “words,” “phrases,” or “sentences” that function as independent, complete units. In order to create this effect, the poet may leave out a letter, join two words or phrases, or even end a word with a dash.
In poetic writing, an S-shaped curve is often used to indicate the dash. Similarly, a U-shaped curve is used to indicate the parentheses and a colon.
The dash is also known to appear embedded in words or phrases, as a sort of “hidden meter.” When this happens, the dash can be challenging to identify. Many words that start with a dash include it in their spelling, but it is not always possible to determine the dash from the spelling of the word alone.
Other Uses for Dashes
Thanks to modern technology, the dash has taken on a number of new functions. For example, on social media platforms such as Twitter, the dash can be used to indicate a number of different things, including the starting point of a new topic or comment, a joke, a rhetorical question, an exclamation point, or even a hashtag.
On the other hand, the dash can also be used to indicate the end of a sentence, a transitional word or phrase, or even a full stop or period. If the information being conveyed by the sentence, phrase, or word is irrelevant to the conversation, the dash can be used to indicate that the information is not important to the speaker, and should be shortened or omitted.
Similarly, a dash can be used in math equations to represent the unknown variable. For example, 2-3-5 stands for “two, three, and five,” while 2-3-5- represents “two, three, five, and,” or “two, three, five, and six.” The dash can be used to indicate that the value is either unknown or irrelevant at the moment the equation is posed.
How to Use Dashes in Creative Writing
In creative writing, the dash can be used in a number of ways. Generally, the dash is used in a scene to indicate a change in tone or the point at which something interesting, dramatic, or unexpected happens. As a result, the dash is most often found at the beginning of a sentence or clause.
In this way, the dash can serve as a sort of “hook” that makes the reader interested in what comes next. For example, in the sentence “The old woman was cooking and the young boy was cutting up vegetables,” the dash indicates that the action of cooking happened at some point in the past and it is continuing at the moment the reader is hearing about it. Similarly, in the phrase “My new friend invited me to a party,” the dash connects the sentence “My new friend” to the word “invited.”
The writer may also choose to use two dashes, one at the beginning and one at the end of a sentence, to indicate that the tone or content is simultaneously shifting and coming to a close. The first dash at the beginning of the sentence would then be followed by a period, signaling that what comes next is a summary of what has gone before. This is known as a run-on sentence, and it can be disconcerting to read for those who are not familiar with this type of writing:
“I went to the store, and I came back with an apple pie and ice cream. At first, I was going to eat it alone, but then my friend asked me to share it with her. We had a brief conversation about the events of the day, and then I invited her to a party.”
In a similar fashion, the second dash at the end of the sentence can be used to indicate an incomplete transition or an unexpected turn in the narrative. In this case, the full stop or period that follows the dash would be used to indicate the return to the normal tempo of the writing:
“I woke up late, so I decided to stay in bed a while longer. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, an old woman was standing there with an apple pie and ice cream. She said that she was cooking dinner, and that if I liked, she could let me eat with her family. I accepted the invitation, and we had a short but lovely conversation about apples and other fruit-related topics. Then, I walked her to her door, and she gave me a hug and asked me to come again. That was when, out of the blue, an old man showed up with an apple pie and ice cream. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life. That is when I knew that my life had truly changed for the better.”
In creative writing, the dash is most often found at the beginning of a sentence or clause, but it can be used elsewhere as well.