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Dashes are very useful and versatile pieces of punctuation, which help to make writing more dynamic – and dramatic.
They can be used – as in the paragraph above – to provide an urgent coda to a sentence. They can also be used, as in the previous sentence, to make text that would otherwise have been enclosed in commas (or brackets) stand out and seem more important. Here’s an example:
The Clearing House would be able to focus on its core function – collecting contributions – rather than building the infrastructure necessary to handle transfers.
Brackets or commas here would have implied that the readers didn’t know the core function of the Clearing House, whereas the dashes give prominence to the words they enclose. Here they signal to the reader that, although everyone knows that collecting contributions is what the Clearing House does, this is actually an extremely important function.
Don’t mistake dashes for hyphens. They look very similar, but dashes are longer (about the width of the letter “n”), they have a space before and after, and their function is completely different. If you use a hyphen instead of a dash, Microsoft Word will usually replace it as you type. Unfortunately though, it misses some. You can put one in manually by holding down CTRL and pressing the minus key on your PC’s numeric keypad.