Thursday, November 17, 2011

Be My Guest Jodie Renner

Ellipses vs. Dashes; Hyphen, Em Dash and En Dash 

A.  Ellipsis (…) or Dash (—)?

In fiction,
An ellipsis (…) is used to show hesitation: “What I meant is…I don’t know how to begin…”  (Also indicates the omission of words in a quoted text.)

A dash (—), also called em dash, is used to show an interruption in speech:
“But I—”
“But nothing! I don’t want to hear your excuses!”

or a sudden break in thought or sentence structure: “Will he—can he—find out the truth?”

The dash is used for amplifying or explaining, for setting off information within a sentence, kind of like parentheses or commas can do: “My friends—I mean, my former friends—ganged up on me.”

B.  Hyphen vs. En Dash vs. Em Dash:

The en dash is longer than the hyphen but shorter than the em dash (the regular dash)

A hyphen (-) is used within a word. It separates the parts of a compound word: bare-handed, close-up, die-hard, half-baked, jet-lagged, low-key, never-ending, no-brainer, pitch-dark, self-control, single-handed, sweet-talk, user-friendly, up-to-date, watered-down, work-in-progress, etc.

Dashes are used between words.

An en dash (–) connects numbers (and sometimes words), usually in a range, meaning “to”: 1989–2007; Chapters 16–18;  the score was 31–24 for Green Bay; the London–Paris train; 10:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.

An em dash (—) is used to mark an interruption, as mentioned above (“What the—”), or material set off parenthetically from the main point—like this. Don’t confuse it with a hyphen (-). Some authors, publishers, and companies prefer an en dash with spaces on each side of it for this: ( – ).

C.  How to Create Em Dashes and En Dashes:

Em dash (—) Ctrl+Alt+minus (far top right, on the number pad). CMS uses no spaces around em dashes; AP puts spaces on each side of em-dashes

En dash (–) Ctrl+minus (far top right, on the number pad)

D. Advanced Uses of the Dash (Em Dash):
According to the Chicago Manual of Style (6.87), “To avoid confusion, no sentence should contain more than two em dashes; if more than two elements need to be set off, use parentheses.”

Also, per CMS, “if an em dash is used at the end of quoted material to indicate an interruption, a comma should be used before the words that identify the speaker:
“I assure you, we shall never—,” Sylvia began, but Mark cut her short.

But: “I didn’t—”

No comma after it here, as that’s the end of the sentence, and no tagline.

The CMS (6.90) says that if the break belongs to the surrounding sentence rather than to the quoted material, the em dashes must appear outside the quotation marks: “Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to see it.”

Using an em dash in combination with other punctuation: CMS 6.92: “A question mark or an exclamation point—but never a comma, a colon, or a semicolon, and rarely a period—may precede an em dash.

All at once Jeremy—was he out of his mind?—shook his fist in the officer’s face.

Only if—heaven forbid!—you lose your passport should you call home.

Guest blogger Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, romance, YA, and historical fiction. Jodie’s services range from developmental and substantive editing to light final copy editing and proofreading, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at

Posted by Maryann Miller who used to always confuse ems with ens and resorted to hyphens at all the wrong times.

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  1. Big pat on my own back for FINALLY using some part of grammar correctly. Thanks for the simplified breakdown.

  2. Regarding the keyboard shortcuts, Jodie, the ones you offer apply to MS Word, which is almost but not quite universal. It might be important to note that ctrl+- on the numeric pad generates an en-dash, but ctrl+- on the top row of the main keyboard generates a so-called optional or hidden hyphen, one which will appear only if needed to break a word at the end of a line in fully justified text (quaded, to us old-timers). Hidden hyphens, by the way, can wreak havoc with e-book editions, because they become hyphens in the middle of words regardless of where they appear.

    I do like one of your examples: “Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to see it.” This is clearer, and strictly speaking more correct, than the alternative which I often see in print, using commas: “Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots and,” his voice turned huffy, “I won’t be there to see it.”

    --Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)

  3. Thanks, Dana and Larry, for your comments. I'm away on a cruise with limited and very expensive internet, so won't be able to comment as much as I usually do.


  4. Exactly what I needed to know today. I'm printing this out and keeping it by my laptop! Thanks so much.

  5. Excellent information presented well.

    As for typing the various types of dashes, I'd only worry about that if I were doing final formatting (e.g., for direct publishing an e-book). Until then, use traditional manuscript rules: one hyphen for a hyphen or en-dash and two hyphens for an em-dash.

    If you get published through a legacy publisher, a professional typesetter will convert to the proper dashes (with our without spaces according to house style).

    AP puts spaces on each side of the dash because their guidelines were designed for newspaper printing. In narrow columns of text, spaces can be stretched pretty wide when justifying a line. When that happens, the visual proportions get so far out of whack that a dash can start to look like a hyphen connecting the words on either side instead of a mark breaking up the sentence. It's exactly the opposite of what you'd want. (I was a the typesetter for my college paper a couple decades ago.)

    If your typesetter is really awesome he/she will make sure that a line break never happens at the beginning of a dash or an ellipsis.

  6. Thanks, Teresa and Adrian. Besides having very expensive internet on this cruise (75 cents per minute!), I'm also a bit seasick, so just checking back sporadically.

    Adrian, quite a few of my clients selp-publish, so I like to get the formatting right for e-books, or near perfect for submitting to agents and editors, so I make sure to use the proper dashes at this stage, so it all looks very professional.

  7. Very useful information. Thanks, Jodie.

    Morgan Mandel

  8. Great clarification, Jodie. I get manuscripts with hyphens instead of em-dashes all the time. Hope you're feeling less seasick!

    For all you Mac lovers out there, here are the shortcuts:
    em-dash is "shift + option + hyphen"
    en-dash is "option + hyphen"

    Also—at least on my Mac—Word is set to auto-replace double hyphen with an em-dash.

  9. Thanks, Kathryn, for supplying that info on creating en-dashes and em-dashes with Mac!

  10. Live by the ellipses ... die by the ellipses.


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