Dashes vs. Elipses

How Are Dashes and Elipses Related?

The second-worst offenders in the wonderful wide world of punctuation is dashes and ellipses.* I count these two together because the single biggest problem I see with them is that most people don’t know the difference between the two. Oh, we can all tell one from the other as printed. This is a dash:

And this is an elipsis:

. . .

The problem is that their usage looks similar unless you’ve actually studied them. Writers use them in a lot of the same locations in sentences, but for very different reasons.

If, like most people, you’re not entirely clear on those reasons, you will consistently be ever-so-slightly in error. If you are an as-yet unpublished author trying to sell a book or story, you’ll find it’s much easier to sell your manuscript if you appear to have a grasp on some of these fundamentals.

If you’re a published author or one currently contracted to be published, learning the difference will probably make your relationship with your editor smoother, because your editor won’t be left to clean it up. Speaking on behalf of editors everywhere (or at least the ones in the vent-session I was exposed to yesterday) . . . we are not the maid. Our job is to help you produce a stronger story that will sell more copies–not simply to clean up after you.

So let me try to break it down and make it understandable. Let’s start with dashes. There are two types of dashes, the en-dash (–) and the em-dash (—). The en-dash is short and most of us already know how to use it. When someone stutters in dialogue, this is the symbol we use to indicate that stutter at the beginning of the word (e.g. “Th-th-that’s all, folks!”).



When I talk about dashes going forward, I’ll be talking talking about em-dashes. These are longer, which is easier to see in some fonts than others. To avoid confusion, I’m going to represent an em-dash as two hyphens (–) throughout the remainder of this post. This is old-style manuscript formatting, from before we all had word processors that were smart enough to put a real dash in for us.

And on that note, let me mention that most word processors will automatically do that dash wrong. You never want spaces around your dash. You may see that in blog articles or news articles and think it’s the right thing to do. Don’t give in to that temptation–journalism frequently has an entirely different standards for formatting than fiction does.

Right: No one would be listening–not the tourists, not the locals–because no one cared.

Wrong: No one would be listening — not the tourists, not the locals — because no one cared.

Even More Wrong: No one would be listening – not the tourists, not the locals – because no one cared.

A dash has two primary uses, depending on where it is in a sentence. In the middle of the sentence, it sets off additional information more strongly than a comma would.

No one would be listening–not the tourists, not the locals–because no one cared.

He’d taken her out to buy clothes–that was his angle.

At the end of a sentence, a dash indicates an interruption. You should almost never use this in narration, only in dialogue. Your character may interrupt her own train of thought, or she may be interrupted by someone else. It makes no difference to the punctuation.

“But I thought–“
“I don’t care what you thought!”



Elipses are another thing your word processor will try to “help” you with and almost always do wrong. If you type […] into your word processor, it will probably change it into […], a single-character symbol which makes editors want to tear their hair out because it’s hard to read and turns into garbage when you try to convert a manuscript into an e-book.

Elipses are tricky, because different publishing houses want them represented in different ways. I’m not even going to go into them here. Read the house’s style guide ahead of time if it’s available. Never use more than three dots within a sentence or four dots at the end of a sentence. And most importantly, however you choose to write your elipses, do it consistently–global search-and-replace is an editor’s friend.

More important than any of that, be sure you understand how an elipsis is used. Within a sentence, an elipsis indicates a pause far more strongly than a comma, but does not typically set off additional information.

Sorry, Charlie, that’s . . . pushing it.

At the end of a sentence, an elipsis indicates that the sentence trails off. This usually occurs in either dialogue or character thoughts, rather than in narration.

But I can’t just . . .

How long . . . ?

As with all rules, there will always be exceptions. In particular, artistic license allows authors to justify doing non-standard things in their text. When you consider invoking artistic license, please remember that writing is about knowing the rules . . . and then deciding how to break them. You can absolutely choose non-standard usage: to make a point, for emphasis, or for clarity. But you have to know the rules before you make that decision. If you don’t take the trouble to know the rules first, your chosen violations won’t look like artistic license. They’ll just look like you don’t know what you’re doing.


* The worst offender I see go by in manuscripts I edit is the comma, but that’s such a minefield, it will take more than one post to cover it. *g*

Most examples shamelessly borrowed from the text of “Crash,” by April L’Orange, because I am rubbish at making up examples (and if I can’t steal for myself, who can I steal from?).

Previously posted at The Editor’s Pen


About April L'Orange

April L'Orange is a hard-working editor and author of science fiction and fantasy. She began life as a terribly serious little old woman and has been growing younger ever since. When she's not writing, she can often be found painting bits of her house or beating back the yard with a machete. She and her husband currently live in upstate New York, where they are owned by three cats and the Squirrel Mafia. She's published short stories in anthologies available from Escape Collective Press and Pink Narcissus Press. For more information, please visit aprillorange.wordpress.com.

Posted on February 6, 2012, in Mechanics. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: