A Helping Hand…dot dot dot, dash dash dash…S.O.S!

The hyphen, the en dash, the em dash, and the ellipsIs. Probably the least understood (after the comma!) members of Team Punctuation. Also the ones I don’t often see used correctly.

So, we’ve learnt how to use semicolons (here), and we’ve learnt how to use apostrophes (here). And we’re doing it right, aren’t we, children? Of course, you are!

I’ll do my best to keep it simple and identify a few main simple rules.

The hyphen

This is the smallest of the dash family. It’s the key on your numbers row on your keyboard to the right of the zero and shares its place with the underscore character. When is it used?

  • In compound adjectives:

white-haired lady, red-faced man, good-looking teenager, eighteenth-century furniture, up-to-date news, well-known actress. But remember the latter two are not hyphenated in the following instances:

The news was up to date. The actress is well known.

  • With all words beginning ‘self’ followed by a noun:

self-confidence, self-sufficiency

  • With prefixes such as auto, anti, semi, non—but there are no hard and fast rules on this one, so it’s always—always—best to check in the dictionary. (E.g., semicircle, autobiography are not hyphenated)
  • Numbers: twenty-one, thirty-three

There is never a space before or after a hyphen, unless it’s ‘hanging’, eg:

  • The teacher’s class consisted of three- and four-year-olds.

The En Dash

The hyphen’s slightly bigger brother is the en dash.

Unfortunately, there is no en dash symbol on our keyboards. If you have a number pad to the right of your Querty keyboard, then the en dash can be inserted using Alt and 0150. Or it can be inserted using Insert/Symbol and it can be found under the Special Characters tab. Alternatively, if you are feeling very brave, you can create your own shortcut key.

  • The en dash is used to connect a number range, eg: Pages 255–344,  World War II (1939–1945)


  • An unfinished range of numbers: Cathy Speight (1954–)

Again, no spaces before or after this character.

The Em Dash

The big brother of the family. Again Mr Gates hasn’t provided us with a nice handy key for the em dash. It’s a matter of using Insert/Symbol/Special Character, or with the numeric keypad Alt plus 0151, or creating your own shortcut. Another way is by typing two hyphens, then pressing enter. The two hyphens then make the em dash. However, you’ve then got a new paragraph, so you have to backspace. You’ve achieved the end result, but it’s a bit of a palaver. None of the methods to get the em dash is perfect, so choose what works best for you.

The em dash can replace a comma (where a longer break is needed), colons, or parentheses, e.g.:

  • Steve Hise—also known as the Evil Mastermind—gave extra gruel portions to his staff on IU’s anniversary.
  • Indies Unlimited is made up of a first-class team of authors—many are topping Amazon’s best-sellers’ list.
  • “I—I don’t know what to do,” she stammered.

It’s also used in interrupted dialogue, in the middle or at the end:

  • “I think I’ll go to the shops later and buy myself a dress for—oh no, it’s started to rain!”
  • “Let’s have a picnic today since the weather’s fine and my—“ The front doorbell rang before Jane could finish.

No spacing before or after the em dash.

The Ellipsis

The ellipsis is used when quoting from a larger body of material to indicate omissions in that quote. No key for this one either, but it can be inserted using Ctrl plus Alt plus the period. Or Insert-Symbol-Special Characters.

So how do we use the ellipsis? I’m going to quote a passage from ‘Upgrade’. (I have to—can’t risk gruel through a straw again, I might disappear down a drainhole). But I’m going to leave a bit out (sorry EM):

  • “Simmons was Brent’s right-hand man at the company…Brent had allowed Simmons a great deal of autonomy, but lately,…legal work outside the firm. The company was poised…with Microsoft went through.”

There doesn’t seem to be a hard-and-fast rule about spaces before and after the ellipsis or even between the dots that make up the ellipsis. CMOS likes a space between each dot but no preceding or succeeding space. Whatever you choose, be consistent.

The ellipsis is also used to denote a pause or unspoken words, especially in dialogue:

  • “I was wondering…” said Chris dreamily, “if I should write another book.”
  • “I was really tempted by that chocolate gâteau at the pâtisserie, but…well…you know, a minute on the lips is a lifetime on the hips!”

And that, in a nutshell, is it.

Easy, isn’t it?

Author: Cathy Speight

Reviewer Cathy Speight is British and lives in England. The Kindle revived her passion for reading and after stumbling on a Facebook group of independent authors, she now does her best to encourage and assist indies as much as possible. Books by indie author form the majority of her collection. Cathy shares her views on the books she has read on her blog.

33 thoughts on “A Helping Hand…dot dot dot, dash dash dash…S.O.S!”

  1. Thanks Cathy. Not easy at all, actually. I know I’ve been misusing the last three, more out of not knowing how to find them on the keyboard than anything else. I tend to use hyphens for em and en dashes. Interesting about the ellipsis, though. I was told I needed a space both before and after. And I KNOW we were not taught any of these when I went to school.

    1. I too have seen a space before and after the ellipses. CMOS says no. I have also see no space before, but one after. I’ve seen all options used fairly equally. As long as there’s consistency, I guess it’s fine!

  2. Great info Cathy.
    If a person has a keyboard with the number keypad to the right of the regular keyboard, by using the Ctrl key plus the ‘minus’ sign on the number keypad it also creates an en dash (–), although it does not work when typing in this comment field.

    When I use MS word, when I start to type the ellipsis, it automatically completes the way it should look…three dots/periods with no space between the periods—at least it has been doing it for me, lol.

    I use all of these a lot, probably a little more than I should, but its funny when reading to see there are still a lot of self-published authors out there that don’t know about any of them.

    (There, I think I used them all correctly in my response, 🙂 )

  3. Thanks. I finally learned the proper use of the en dash.

    Note: some news services that use the AP style guide put spaces around the em dash. (I have one marketing services client that insists on the spaces.)

    Tip: if you use Microsoft Word, you can set an auto-format option to turn a pair of hyphens into an em dash.

  4. Excellent info! I will share this link with my editor.

    There is a way you can make an “auto em dash.” In Word, go to:
    File, Options, Proofing, Auto Correct Options (button), then in the Replace box, type — and in the other box, you will paste an em dash from a document (one you created the hard way). Then click OK. You should be able to go back into a document and type — and it will convert to the single long dash.

    Thanks for the info on ellipsis, sometimes I have to question if I’m using them right. You cleared up some of my questions.

  5. Scribbling away like fury here Cathy. Great tutorial. So that’s how you do an Em dash! Brilliant! I am genuinely excited because I have learned something really useful from this. Could you please tell Chris James to stop throwing paper pellets at me though. It’s very distracting when I am trying to concentrate, Miss.

  6. Great info! I always worry I the em dash and ellipsis incorrectly. Now if I do, I have no excuse :). And along with pressing ctrl and the minus key for an en dash as Jacqueline posted, you can do ctrl – alt – minus for an em dash. The auto em dash is probably a better option, though.

  7. I used various em and en dashes for my ebooks and found in the conversion I got crazy symbols, so I deleted them all and use — instead. Does anyone know of a workaround for this so you don’t get the crazy symbols?

  8. As always, you have provided wonderful guidance! I pride myself on proper use of semi-colons but know I have gone astray using several other forms of punctuation. I’m saving this post! You provide the examples in such an easy to understand and user-friendly manner. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  9. Great post, Cathy – thanks. I tend to stick with hyphens for my own ease of writing and to avoid any (more) dramas with epub conversion screwing those characters up. Never having really got the differences between the en and em dashes, and seeing as they weren’t on the keyboard, I figured if I was consistent then I could get away with hyphens instead – by showing an interruption in dialogue, for example. Another thing that I think looks a bit ugly on the page is when a word is immediately connected to a big line—before the next word, even though I’m wrong and that is in fact the correct way to do it *sniff*

    1. This information is sorely needed, from what I’ve read recently.

      Just as an interesting aside: Portland (Oregon)’s main newspaper, The Oregonian, has benches outside its building shaped like punctuation marks. I just think that’s so cool.

  10. Thanks, Cathy! I grew up on AP Style 😉 so that’s how I handle the em dash — a space before and after. Didn’t know what the en dash was for, though, before this, so thanks for that info. 🙂

    Two questions, tho:
    1. In your example that starts, “Let’s have a picnic today,” Word (or somebody) has helpfully inserted an open-quote curly quote mark after your em dash. This happens to me all the time, and it makes me nuts. Clearly the dash needs to go *inside* the quote marks, the way you have it, but if you do it the right way, Word inserts the wrong quotation mark. The only way I’ve found to fix it is to put the dash outside the quotes, like so: “I know I was supposed to stop at the dry cleaners” — he paused and scuffed his toe on the carpet — “but it was raining and I didn’t want the plastic bags to get wet.” *Then* Word will end the quote with close-quote mark. It’s wrong! I *know* it’s wrong! But I can’t figure out how else to fix it! Help!!
    2. How do I keep the en dash and em dash straight in my head? I always mix up the terms….

    1. That’s why I like to use straight quotes rather than smart quotes, then there’s no room for error! But, WordPress does its own thing. The en dash only has one use: for number ranges. So it’s em for everything else.

  11. On a Mac keyboard, you get an ellipsis by hitting option/semicolon. Very quick. Likewise the em-dash is an option/hyphen.
    I am under the impression that the proper format for ellipsis is that the space before and after should be equal to the space between the dots of the ellipsis itself. It certainly looks best this way. This means you have to experiment, because this will be different with different fonts. Some will need an added space, some will not. In some fonts, the space before and after different letters varies. As I say, experiment.
    The bottom line is not some hard-and-fast rule made up by the pundits. It’s what looks good on the page.
    I’m with Ms Cantwell and others on the em-dash. I like a space before and after. It seems to me that the em-dash is meant to create a parenthetical expression – detached from the text for purposes of emphasis and meaning – and having the punctuation mark itself jammed tightly against the text defeats the purpose

      1. I have used a lot of “space-em-dash-space” in my latest e-book, and I don’t know if my editor is going to let me get away with it. I’m glad I got ammunition from this blog in the reference to the AP Style Guide. Thanks, folks!

  12. Is there a transatlantic thing going on with em dashes and spaces? I was taught when copy-editing and proofreading in England that there should be no spaces but I see them a lot in work from US writers.

  13. I had to stop using the em dash when I started ePublishing; like Grace, I found I was ending up with strange symbols; mostly it was a square with a diagonal cross inside. In most cases I use a dash instead now, or a double dash if it’s interrupted dialogue.

    Excellent lesso– I mean excellent post of course, Cathy. I could have done with more teachers like you when I was at school; although you would have been just going to high school when I was leaving to join the army (1965).

  14. Ahhh, the ellipse.

    The bane of my poor masochistic editor’s existence.

    Unfortunately I seem to use it a lot when I’m full writing mode. You know, those periods of zone-out when 1000 words appear in an hour with little accompanying recollection of what they contain?

    I seem to use them as some kind of typed ‘ummm’.

    1. My experience of the ellipsis is as a Speech Arts coach. In poetry, the ellipsis or the m-dash is used at the end of a line to indicate that the thought will continue in the next line after a pause, with no dropping of the emotion.

      ” Let’s jump over it…
      Maybe not.”

      That usage seems to be creeping into prose writing. Sort of a “pregnant pause”. That’s how I often use it.

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