Friday, January 11, 2013

Punctuation 101: Dashes and Ellipses

by Jill Williamson

Welcome to yet another installment of Punctuation 101, the posts that are all about punctuation. I'm your host, Jill Williamson. And today, we're talking about dashes and ellipses. What's the difference, you ask? Well, let's find out.

There are two kinds of dashes that are used most often in writing:
the em dash —
and the en dash – 

These are both different from a hyphen -

*Please note, my instructions for creating the dashes is for word processing programs like Microsoft Word. It doesn't work online. If you're online, you either use one hyphen or two.

The em dash

To create the em dash, type a word, then type two hyphens, then type the next word, then type a space. Do not put any spaces until you are done with the sequence. What you type will look like this: word--word(space)

When you hit that last space bar, the two dashes will convert to an em dash. It's pretty cool. If you can't figure out how to make that super long em dash show up, it's acceptable to use two hyphens in place of the em dash--like that.

1. Use an em dash to set off parenthetical material that you want to emphasize.
Ex: Everything that went wrong—from the C- on our history project to Tom breaking up with her—Shelly blamed on me.
Ex: Can you believe that Susie Walker—a cheerleader and a freshman—won homecoming queen?

2. Use an em dash to set off appositives that contain commas.
Ex: When you apply the make-up—foundation, mascara, eye shadow, and lipstick—be sure to follow the guidelines.

3. Use an em dash to signify a break it thought.
Ex: “I can’t believe Mr. Thomas ate all the—did you just say that Kate had the baby?”

4. Use an em dash to signify an interruption.
Ex: “I don’t know why it happened. Maybe it’s because—”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses. I’m sick of them!”

The en dash
To create the en dash, type a word, type a space, then type one hyphen, then type the next word, then type a space. What you type will look like this: word(space)-word(space)

When you hit that last space bar, the dash will convert to an en dash. This is also pretty cool. NOTE: You'll have to go back and take out the first space once the dash is converted. It's proper format that no space appear before or after the dash. If you read Harry Potter, you'll see spaces with her dashes. Keep in mind that J. K. Rowling is a British author and the punctuation and grammar rules are different there. I am teaching the rules for the United States. If you are looking to get published in the United States, follow these rules.

1. Use an en dash to connect inclusive numbers such as: page numbers, dates, or Bible references. Here the en dash means "up to and including" or "through."
Ex: Please read in your text pages 86–92.
Ex: I went to college from 1993–1997.
Ex: I read John 3:16–17 and it changed my life.

Singular: ellipsis [ih-lip-sis]
Plural: ellipses [ih-lip-seez]

To create an ellipsis, type three periods in a row and hit enter. Most programs will automatically format it into an ellipsis. If your program won't, you can simply type three periods in a row: ... Or you can type three periods with a space in between each: . . . As long as you are consistent, the editors will not care. When the time comes, they can easily replace all your ellipses with the Find/Replace function to whatever standard their publishing house requires.

There should be a space before and after each ellipsis.
Correct ex: "Can you . . . believe it?"
Incorrect ex: "Can you. . .believe it?"

If the ellipsis is at the beginning or end of a sentence that uses quotes, do not put a space between the ellipsis and the quotes.
Ex: "But how will I . . ."
Ex: ". . . because I said so."

Ellipses are used to show thought or dialogue faltering or trailing off. If your character is confused, insecure, uncertain, falling asleep, or passing out, an ellipsis is the tool you want to convey this.

Ex: “Where . . . I had it right . . . then medallion . . . I must have dropped it!”
Ex: “I want to go there . . . first thing . . . in the morning.”
Ex: “Okay. I’ll tell you who shot me. It was . . .” Kit’s body went limp in John’s arms.

Some publishers use four-dot ellipsis when they fall at the end of a paragraph. Some don't. You will not be rejected for doing this one way or the other. Whatever you decide, be consistent. I never use the four-dot ellipsis. I feel as though an ellipses shows that my character's thought is trailing off. And extra period to tell the reader that the end of the paragraph is there seems redundant to me. But my publisher added some into my latest manuscript edits. They're the publisher, and they're allowed to do things a certain . . . .

Dashes and ellipses ever confuse you? Any other questions about these little fellows?


  1. Hmm. . . Very helpful post. I love the Publication 101 posts!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

  2. Great advice!! Oh:

    4. Use an em dash to signify an interruption.
    Ex: “I don’t know why it happened. Maybe it’s because—”
    “I don’t want to hear you're excuses. I’m sick of them!”

    Instead of 'you're excuses', shouldn't it be: 'your excuses'? XD

    1. ROFL!!! I noticed that too!!!! :D *High fives*

    2. Ah, yes. That's what I get for writing a post in the dead of night...
      Fixed it. Thank you. :-)

  3. These punctuation posts are SO HELPFUL!!! After I read them, I go and tell my mom what I just learned, and she says, "Good! But no, that does not count as English for the day." Me: "Aww. I was hoping it would ..."

    Anyway. These are awesome. I had a feeling I was messing some of this stuff up...especially the ellipses points. Just a question about those: what happens when you need parenthesis after them? As for the spacing, that is.

    1. Ha ha. Well, nice try, I guess. :-)

      Not sure what you mean here: what happens when you need parenthesis after them?

      You should not use parenthesis in fiction. It's kind of frowned upon. Can you give me an example of what you mean?

    2. Oh, well, there you have it. I just won't use parenthesis...

  4. Thank you, Jill, for these posts, they're always helpful. :-)

  5. Do they confuse me? *laughs nervously* Why else would you assume that? I've probably been doing this ALL wrong. I always just type ... or -. So I must need to practice with these rules. :D

  6. Oh heyyy! I was just working on my WIP and at one point I was wondering if a piece of dialogue would be confused since the character changes in mid-sentence. Now, I know what to good :)

  7. Oh wow, I always wondered how to type those long dashes--now I know! Um...that's actually still two little dashes, not one long one...maybe I need to practice.
    Hey, I was wondering. I live in New Zealand, I entered the First Lines comp. Was I actually allowed to, or is the comp for United States only?

    1. Yes, you were! We love our international readers :)

    2. I'm sure you did it right, Tierney. The method of typing the dash the way I explained it is for word processing programs like Microsoft Word. It doesn't work online. I should have said that in the post... *goes to add that now*

  8. Thanks for the helpful post!
    I've been doing my dashes the British way, I realised - I guess that's because I read Harry Potter growing up, so I'm used to seeing them done that way.

    1. That makes sense, Kate. And if it's a hassle to retrain yourself, you can always do a Find/Replace when you're done with the novel and fix them all at once. If you use a program that does Find/Replace, that is...

  9. Thank you! I wondered about dashes *so* much. I've been doing most of them wrong, though...

    Oh, and "'Okay. I’ll tell you who shot me. It was . . .' Kit’s body went limp in John’s arms." made me literally laugh out loud. Very bad time to go limp, Kit.

  10. Ah, so *that's* the difference. :)

    {Hey, Jill, would you mind pretty please tackling who/whom in a future...oops, I just realized this is a punctuation series, not a grammar series. Oh, well, I'll ask anyway because I *think* I know the difference/when to use what, but I'm surrounded by English majors in school and none of *them* even are sure! At least, the ones I'm not afraid to ask... ::grin::}

  11. Thanks Jill! that was really helpful!!

    I use ellipses ALL the time! (At least it feels like that!) I was never really sure if I was doing them right and I didn't even know the proper name for them! I just call them my "dot dot dots" =P

    Thanks again!