Is the dash an acceptable punctuation in this sentence?

Dances, parties, luncheons -- all these should be part of your senior year.

  • Looks fine to me. I've seen this usage many times, and I've used it myself on occasion as well. The semi-colon can also be used as an alternative sometimes (digression -- in this context, the semi-colon could be thought of as replacing the word "therefore," but it's got multiple purposes such as replacing the word "however" as well as some other uses, so a little more care is needed when using a semi-colon). – Randolf Richardson Nov 5 '11 at 3:34
  • But, what you're using here is two dashes, which is different from a single dash -- your use of the double-dash seems to me to be just fine. – Randolf Richardson Nov 5 '11 at 3:36

Yes it's okay to use a dash there. But strictly speaking it should be an em dash...

Dances, parties, luncheons — all these should be part of your senior year.

The shorter en dash is for value ranges, such as £100–150.

The even shorter plain old dash (aka hyphen) is for word-hyphenation.

EDIT: These distinctions don't really apply to casual/informal writing such as us here at ELU, but they are quite rigorously applied by professional typesetters.

  • 4
    +1 for pointing out the em/en/dash distinctions. I personally prefer to have no spaces before/after the em dash, but that's become a stylistic choice these days (used to be always no space). – narx Nov 5 '11 at 3:59
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    Personally, I refuse to accept the notion that an em dash is a fundamentally different thing from an en dash or an ordinary dash (or a hyphen), for the same reason that I would never consider a lowercase a drawn with a tail above the loop to be a fundamentally different thing from one drawn without such a tail. – Karl Knechtel Nov 5 '11 at 8:02
  • @Karl: For the purposes of us writing here, for example, I agree with you. I certainly wouldn't edit OP's double-dash to an em dash, though I'm pretty sure I've seen others make such edits in the past. But professional typesetters are usually pretty hot on the distinction. I'd best edit the answer to reflect that. – FumbleFingers Nov 5 '11 at 13:25
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    Actually, what is used for word-hyphenation is a hyphen, not a dash. – kiamlaluno Nov 5 '11 at 21:13

Yes, I would say it was an effective use of the dash. As Larry Trask wrote:

The dash has only one use: a pair of dashes separates a strong interruption from the rest of the sentence . . . If the strong interruption comes at the end of the sentence, then of course only one dash is used.


In that sentence, colons are preferable.

Dances, parties, luncheons: all these should be part of your senior year.

Dashes are normally used in pairs to set off an explanatory remark, or an appositive. You use a single dash to signify a sudden change in thought, or before the citation of the author or source of a quotation.

We are going to—What's that burning smell?

  • Seconded. Colons are most appropriate here, though the em dash also works, if the author wants to indicate a brief pause in thought. +1 – narx Nov 5 '11 at 3:58
  • I can't agree with this. Grammar Girl is as good an authority as any to back up my position - which is that the colon should only be used where what precedes it can stand as a valid sentence. IMHO it should also be possible for what follows to be a syntactically valid sentence as well, so I think it's a complete no-no here. – FumbleFingers Nov 5 '11 at 17:37
  • It's not obligatory to use a sentence after the colon; it could be a phrase as in, "After not seeing her for so many years, I was amazed to find that she is still looked precisely as she always had: like Dan Rather." It is not even a sentence what precedes the colon in, "So, to recap: Capitalize an independent clause or quotation that follows a colon. Anything else, don't." – kiamlaluno Nov 5 '11 at 18:00
  • Om reflection, I retreat from the second point I made. I still think the words before a colon should be grammatically valid as a standalone sentence. What follows should effectively be a "sentence" in semantic terms (ie - make a coherent statement), but grammatically it often leans on the preceding "sentence". I still don't accept the colon as an alternative in OP's sentence. – FumbleFingers Nov 5 '11 at 20:14

Dashes are one of the least standardized of all punctuation marks. That said, the use of the dash in the example produces a perfectly understandable sentence. It serves the same purpose that colon does when a list appears at the end of a sentence.

Making things understandable is the purpose of punctuation. So the dash is fine.

P.S. Some may quibble with the spaces that separate the dash from the words. In some circles this is a no-no.

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