How and When to Use HYPHENS, DASHES, & ELLIPSES

by Jodie Renner, editor and author    Captivate w Silver decal2

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

In my editing of fiction manuscripts, I often find writers using ellipses (…) where they should use dashes, or hyphens instead of dashes, etc. Here’s a brief run-down on the use of these punctuation marks.

A. Ellipsis (…) or Dash (—)?

In fiction,

An ellipsis (…) is used to show hesitation:

“What I meant is… I don’t know how to begin…”

or a trailing off:

“She came with you? But I thought…” She paused.

“You thought what? Come on, spit it out.”

(Also, usually in nonfiction, 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 also 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.”

Note: To  use dashes this way, make sure that if the information between the dashes is taken out, the rest of the sentence still makes sense and flows properly. Also, avoid three dashes in a sentence. Rewrite the sentence to avoid that.

B. Hyphen vs. En Dash vs. Em Dash:

The en dash is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash (the normal 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 (-). In fiction, the em dash almost always appears with no spaces around it. Some authors, publishers, and companies prefer an en dash with spaces on each side of it for this: ( – ). This is more common in nonfiction.

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 Chicago Manual of Style also says (6.90) 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.

Do you have any questions or comments about the use of ellipses, dashes, and hyphens that I can help you with? Please mention them in the comments below.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-Fire up Your Fictionwriting guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. Jodie recently organized and edited two anthologies for charity: Voices from the Valleys and Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers, created to help reduce child labor in Asia. You can find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, at www.JodieRenner.com or www.JodieRennerEditing.com, and on her blog Resources for Writers.

15+

Daniel Hadley is Down in Somerville

This submission for critique has no title, but I think it shows promise. The central character has appeal. Catch my comments on the flip side.

Excerpt
“Daniel’s in stable condition, but he’s been shot.”

I lay in bed, propped up on one elbow, the cell phone digging into my ear. I didn’t even remember it ringing. Had I passed out drunk while talking to someone? But every light in my bedroom was off, save for the pale green LCD of the alarm clock: 1:45 AM. Then the part of my brain that makes sense of words – the part that I normally can’t shut up when I’m trying to go to sleep – kicked in. “Shit,” I said, sitting upright.

“He’s stable, like I said. They’re monitoring him at Mass General.”

“Right,” I answered. “How long?” But the phone went dead.

“Fuck,” I repeated. Then I hung up and got out of bed. I padded across to the closet to pull some jeans off a hanger and yesterday’s bra out of the hamper. A tanktop and a ratty Redskins sweatshirt completed the ensemble. Ninety seconds after getting off the phone I was out the door.

Somerville’s a dense town, so I had to walk a block to where I’d parked my car. The autumn air sobered me up enough to realize I didn’t have a plan just yet. There was one detail I could check, of course. Fishing my phone back out of my pocket, I called Daniel. “Hey, this is Daniel Hadley. I’m either on the phone or -” Damn it. Is there anything longer than a voice mail greeting when you’re trying to reach someone live?

“Daniel, hey, it’s Mara,” I began. “It’s 1:50 A.M. on, uh, Tuesday. Listen, I just got this really strange call that said you were … um. Please call me as soon as you get this, if you’re okay. If you’re not, well …”

I cut myself off there, shutting the phone and fumbling for my keys. I hadn’t fully processed the news yet (Daniel had been shot; holy hell; fatigue and shock kept shoving that detail to the back of my mind, like a rookie hockey player hitting the boards).

Comment Summary on “No-title” Story:

Generally I like the voice of this woman character. She comes across as a no nonsense person who could sustain a reader’s interest with the uniqueness of her character’s attitude and her low key fashion sense. And her attachment to alcohol could prove to be interesting as baggage. But rather than starting out with the dialogue line (as I explain my objection below), I might start out with how this woman feels getting the shock of the cell phone ringing her out of her drunken stupor. No one likes getting calls in the middle of the night. It’s a relatable moment most readers will understand. These calls are NEVER good news. And establishing this character from that moment might also help in creating her “voice” and her attitude more fully from the get go.

This is a personal preference, but I wouldn’t begin a novel with a dialogue line because it feels too much like the start of any other scene. An intro dialogue line into a scene can be effective and I’ve done it, just not for the start of a book. And whoever is speaking needs to be identified in some fashion, even if it’s just someone generic, like “dispatch.” Try to ID the person as soon as you can after the dialogue.

And speaking of identification, when you write in first person, you need to ID the speaker’s gender in some way as soon as you can. The reader will get an idea in their head—like I did that the narrator is a man—who is a cross dresser, when he reaches for yesterday’s bra from the hamper. I’ve done this before too. (The name of my character was a gender neutral name and was supposed to be a teen girl. But when my beta reader read the passage, she thought it was a teen boy who was checking out another guy’s wranglers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it wasn’t my intention.) Once you write a first person POV story, you notice things to watch for. And gender at the start of a book is one of them.

I’m writing a YA book now where I have two teens speaking in first person. I identify them by using their names at the top of each scene and try to have one character per chapter where possible. It makes sense for this book and I like writing challenges.

I also wasn’t sure I understood Mara’s question – “How long?” Is this her entire question? If this was intended to be a question cut short, then add punctuation like a dash to indicate this. “How long—?” or “How long…?”

And if the line goes dead, it takes a while before anyone to notice, but in this scene, the character knows immediately. If the line goes dead, make it more realistic by her rambling until she hears dial tone and gets frustrated.

Also, if you have only one character in the scene, I would try to minimize the use of tag lines identifying her. You should ID the person on the phone, but after that, there isn’t a need to clutter the scene with unnecessary tag lines like ‘I answered, I repeated, I began.’ There are four tag lines in a short segment of a scene with only one character in it after the phone goes dead.

And finally the last paragraph. The punctuation seemed odd to me and pulled me from the story. I’ve never liked the use of semi-colons. Break apart the sentence into fragments if you have to, but resist the semi-colon, especially when the character has the informal attitude this one has. (What do the rest of you think about semi-colons—readers and authors? Copy editors try to put them in and I take them out, making other changes that are more my preference.) See James Scott Bell’s post on semi-colons HERE.

I also rarely use parenthesis, except in my YA books where it can be fun to use sparingly. I prefer em-dashes for emphasis, as shown below.

And the use of the metaphor on hockey—“…fatigue and shock kept shoving that detail to the back of my mind, like a rookie hockey player hitting the boards”—didn’t seem to fit when she was referring to such a serious event as someone getting shot. It makes her sound flip about something that should be more important to her. Also, she’s a Redskins fan AND a hockey fan? I’m sure this is possible, but in one short scene, it seems excessive. You may get more mileage if you made her a super fan of one sport when it comes to her metaphors, rather than spreading her enthusiasm over many.

Even though this scene could be written better, it shows promise with a compelling character voice. I would also consider starting the novel with something else that happens prior to this scene—like maybe Daniel’s shooting. If this is crime fiction, I like to start with a crime. And I’ve also found that you can always go back to write that action scene after you’ve started the book to get a feel for the story and its characters. It might help to know Daniel before you shoot him, for example. (Wow, that sounded awful.)

Any other helpful comments for this author?

0