That Damn Dash Mark

Over the years I’ve scoured websites, textbooks and other material looking for a concise chapter to explain the dash “-” mark in Romanian syntax and yet never found it. Perhaps it exists somewhere and you can provide us with a link. But for now you’ll have to do with my mini guide.

I actually used to write Romanian before I spoke or understood a single word of it. A (Romanian) friend of mine would (hand) write letters for family back home and then give them to me to type them into emails. Hey, typing rapidly is one of my few marketable skills.

As I already spoke or partially understood a number of other languages, seeing all those dash marks in Romania really threw me for a loop. What were they? How are they used?

The first thing to understand is that the dash mark is silent. It plays no role whatsoever in determining how the words in a sentence are pronounced or emphasized. That’s because the dash mark is, in effect, a way to write down what people were already saying.

As a Contraction

Many times the dash mark is used exactly the same way as an English apostrophe sometimes is – to denote a contraction, a removal of a letter or two. Just as the apostrophe in the words “don’t” and “isn’t” replace a letter “o”, often times in Romanian the dash does the same thing.

Example: mam plictisit (I am bored).

In this case, the dash is used to contract what would otherwise be “mi am”, pronounced “me om”.

Mashing these two words together becomes “m-am” and so the word is pronounced exactly as if the dash didn’t exist – just say “mom” if you speak English and you’ve got it.

Example: nu ai crezut gets contracted to nai crezut and therefore “new aye” becomes pronounced “nye”.

Example: intru o buna zi becomes intro buna zi and therefore “intro oh” gets shortened to just “intro”.

Example: cine a pus carciuma in drum? becomes cine a pus carciuman drum?

Example: cred ca o luna sau doua becomes cred co luna sau doua.

Example: o fi bine, nu o fi bine becomes o fi bine, no fi bine.

You’ll notice in all these case that the dash “-” mark is always replacing the second vowel when two vowels are next to one another in a sentence. This reduces one syllable in many cases and makes the sentence faster to say.

By far the most common contraction in Romanian is “sa” for “sa a“. What makes this confusing is that the word “sa” on its own is a separate word and used a different way.

I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for my full-length post on vowels to understand this further.

Vowel Changer

Sometimes you’ll notice the “dash” mark is used to both contract a sentence as well as add a vowel shift.

Example: dulce e vinul becomes dulcei vinul.

What’s going on? If you sound the long form out, you realize there’s two “e” sounds in a row, being duel-cheh eh vee-nool. That’s hard to vocalize so the second “e” gets shifted into an “i”.

Example: Nu e pamant ca Ardealul becomes Nui pamant ca Ardealul.

Example: Asta e viata becomes astai viata.

Pronoun Connector

Sometimes however the dash “-” mark is used as a way to connect a pronoun to a verb.

In simpler terms, Romania has a variety of ways to say “it/she/him/them” etc and sometimes the dash mark is used to write these down.

Since the subject is a little complicated, I’ll save the detail explanation for a later post.

Example: ai vazuto?

This means “have you seen it/her?” in the singular, as in whatever I am asking about is a single, female “thing” because the Romanian pronoun here is “o”. Keep in mind that all Romanian nouns have grammar so they’re always either female or male and no truly neutral gender word like “it” exists.

But there is nothing being shortened or contracted by that dash mark in this example. It’s simply a Romanian syntax that you’ve got to get used to and means absolutely nothing.

Example: Lai vazut?

This is confusing because this sentence is the masculine form but written differently. Why did the masculine form come at the beginning of this sentence and the female at the end of the other one? Again, I’ll get into this later.

The dash mark in this sentence however is an example of both a pronoun placeholder and a contraction. The long form is actually “Il ai vazut”.

Personal Pronoun Connector for Imperative Tense

This is quite common in the imperative tense (more on that later as well), to connect the target of the verb to the verb itself. It is not a contraction in these cases.

Example: Sunama!.

This means “call me”.

Example: Iatama!

Example: Sarutama!

Example: Dami un motiv sa mai raman

Reflexive Verb Connector

Romanian grammar contains a lot of reflexive verbs as well as clauses. In simpler terms, this means you sometimes say things like “me I wash my hands”.

Again this doesn’t necessary imply a contraction when the dash mark is used. It is instead more of a written convention to show association. The dash mark is therefore showing whom (or what) the verb’s actions are reflecting back upon.

Example: E foarte rasfatata asta vazanduse dupa aspectul ei.

Again, there is no contraction here, the dash mark is just showing how the pronoun (the “se” part) is reflecting back to the verb in question.

Example: Sunt mult mai indreptatit sami exprim parerea despre tara.

Example: Saptamana trecuta cand tiam comunicat parerea mea.

Definite Article With Foreign Words

When the Romanian language adopts a foreign word (like “marketing”) it is treated as though it is a “neutral” word and declined as such (for much more on that, see here).

The dash mark is then used when writing out the definite article to show it’s a foreign word.

Example: campingul (singular) and campinguri (plural).

Example: Jeepul (singular) and Jeepuri (plural).

Example: chipsul (singular) and chipsuri (plural).

That last one is tricky because somehow the plural form for fried potato slices (“crisps” in UKEnglish) got adopted in the singular in Romanian. Fun times!

When a word gets sufficiently absorbed into every day speech however it loses the “dash” mark and takes normal declensions.

Example: filmul (singular) and filme.

Slang Contractions

Sometimes using the dash mark for a contraction is considered prestige dialect and “correct” and sometimes it’s considered slangy.

Example: Ce tristes noptile.

You might remember that one from my old post (now updated) on the slang form of the verb “to be”.

Example: Fericitas badea al meu cu tine.

While anything “dash s” is going to always be slang, sometimes other contraction are considered “correct” and other times they’re considered “slang” and sometimes somewhere in between.

So how do you know when it’s a slang contraction or when it isn’t? And how do you know when the dash mark is a contraction at all? Am I looking at a horribly mangled sentence with a forest of dash marks or is that actually the correct to write things out?

I’m sorry to say that there is no way to tell at a glance. Hopefully you’ll learn to recognize which function the dash mark is being used for at any given time and then piece it together from there.

What is true, however, in all cases is that the dash mark is solely a written convention to show either a contraction or a connection between the words, or both. The words are pronounced as though it didn’t exist though so just pretend they aren’t there when trying to sound out a sentence.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. nea_caisa says:

    Nu sunt ‘vowel changer’, sunt forme vechi (acum doar regionalisme) ale lui ‘a fi’ : sunt=îs, este=e=îi. Litera î este eliminată fiind greu de pronunțat. Nu confunda cu pronumele ‘îi’ de ex. “îi cumpăr/dau/iau …” .

    Ca fapt divers, pe la 1800 se folosea și apostroful ca prescurtare în loc de linie.


  2. Zu says:

    Tiny clarification (sorry, I can’t help myself, I’m a grammar afficionado :))

    In the two examples I pasted below, both ‘m-‘ and ‘s-‘ are reflexive pronouns, and their full form is ‘ma’ (eu, pe mine, ma) and ‘se’ (el, pe sine, se) and not ‘mi’ and ‘sa’.

    ‘Mi’ is a dative form of the pronoun (cui? mie, mi) as in Mi-ai luat o inghetata – you bought me an ice cream.

    ‘Sa’ is indeed something completely different – a possessive.

    I hope you don’t mind this, I don’t mean to ‘lecture’ you, just wanted to clarify it for you.

    “Example: m-am plictisit (I am bored).

    In this case, the dash is used to contract what would otherwise be “mi am”, pronounced “me om”

    By far the most common contraction in Romanian is “s-a” for “sa a“. What makes this confusing is that the word “sa” on its own is a separate word and used a different way.”


    1. Sam R. says:

      Clarifications always welcome! :D


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