Tag Archives: en dash

How the Written Universe Works: ellipsis, em dash, hyphen, semicolon #amwriting

Much of my blog revolves around grammar and the mechanics of writing, the fundamental force that holds the written universe together. Grammar is gravity, and punctuation is the interdimensional traffic signal, ensuring our words don’t get jammed up and wreck the spacecraft that is our prose.

How the written universe works 1Authors need to understand the rules of how the language we write in works. When we are just starting out, we might have a grip on the basics, but we don’t understand how or when to use the rare punctuations.

So, what about these rare beasts? First up is the ellipsis, the mysterious symbol we all love.

I recommend against using too many ellipses because many authors use them incorrectly or inconsistently.

This is because ellipses are not punctuation and shouldn’t be used as such. They symbolize omitted words and are not punctuation. When the conversation trails off, you must add ending punctuation.

Apples…more apples, rotten, lying on the ground. But I have no apple tree, so where did they…?

Hyphens are not always necessary. If the meaning of a compound adjective is apparent when written as two separate words, a hyphen is not needed.

  • bus stop

If its meaning is understood when written as one word and common usage writes it as one word, again a hyphen is unnecessary.

  • afternoon
  • windshield

Some combinations of “self” must have a hyphen:

  • self-editing
  • self-promotion

Dashes are not hyphens and are used in several ways. One kind of dash we frequently use is the ‘en dash,’ which is the width of an ‘n.’ UK usage often employs the en dash in the place of the em dash.

En dashes join two numbers written numerically and not spelled, in US usage.

  • 1950 – 1951

To insert an en dash in a Word document: type a single hyphen between two words, with a space on either side. When you hit the space bar after the second word, the en dash will lengthen a little, making it slightly longer than a hyphen.

Em dashes are the width of an “m” and are the gateway to a terrible addiction. To make one, key a word, don’t hit the spacebar but do hit the hyphen key twice, then key another word and then hit the spacebar: (word+hyphen+hyphen+word+space) word—word.

Authors and editors become habituated to using em dashes without thinking. After a while, the author types a word, and the little finger hits that hyphen key twice whenever the mind pauses—then types another word and bam!—em dash. Too many em dashes—like salt—ruin the flavor of the prose.

It often works best to rephrase things a little and use a comma or a period. I try to only use em dashes for emphasis, and only rarely.

interrobangThis bring us to creative punctuation, such as the symbol “!?.” An exclamation point followed by a question mark, these mutant morsels of madness are called “interrobangs.”

Editors working in the publishing industry will tell you that the interrobang is not an accepted form of punctuation for anything but comic books, graphic novels, manga, and possibly, text messages to your BFF.

Think about it. Comic book authors are limited to the words they can fit onto a panel and still leave room for the art. They must show events and emotions by combining pictures with as few words as possible to tell the story.

Writers of comics frequently employ creative punctuation to express as much as possible with few words. Interrobangs are a shorthand for the reader. They convey the emotions of shock and surprise without words.

Interrobangs are inappropriate in any other genre. It’s your narrative, so you will do as you see fit. However, more than one punctuation mark at the end of a sentence is not accepted in the literature of any genre but comic books. Interrobangs are a writing habit the professional writer will avoid if they want to be taken seriously.

Semicolons memeThe semicolon. This joining punctuation is not complicated once you know the one rule about when to use semicolons:

  1. If you join two clauses with a semicolon, each clause must be a complete sentence, and they must relate to each other. In other words, they must be two short sentences expanding on ONE idea.

I drive a red Corvette, and we like it. Rover rides shotgun

I drive a red Corvette; we like it. Rover rides shotgun.

I drive a red Corvette and we like it, but Rover rides shotgun.

We don’t separate all three clauses with a comma in the first two examples because that creates a comma splice. The first sentence is one whole idea: they drive a red car that they like. The second sentence is an entirely different thought: the dog likes to sit in the passenger seat.

The comma splice is a dead giveaway that the author isn’t well versed in grammar. Microsoft’s editor app sometimes tells us to use a comma to join two independent clauses when they don’t relate to each other. Microsoft is wrong.

In my opinion, the third example is the best. Conjunctions and a comma join the three independent clauses, and they flow smoothly.

Colons are rarely used in narrative prose but are common in how-to guides. Their purpose is to lead off lists of items or tips.

So, how do we separate independent clauses, words that can stand on their own as a sentence, with proper punctuation instead of ellipses or hyphens? We use coordinating conjunctions.

A comma should be used before these conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, yet, or, and so to separate two independent clauses. They are called coordinating conjunctions because they join two elements of equal importance.

However, we don’t always automatically use a comma before the word “and.” This is where it gets confusing.

comma or apostropheCompound sentences combine two separate ideas (clauses) into one compact package. A comma should be placed before a conjunction only if it is at the beginning of an independent clause. So, use the comma before the conjunction (and, but, or) if the clauses are standalone sentences. If one of them is not a standalone sentence, it is a dependent clause, and you do not add the comma.

Take these two sentences: She is a great basketball player. She prefers swimming.

  1. If we combine them this way, we add a comma: She is a great basketball player, but she prefers swimming.
  2. If we combine them this way, we don’t: She is a great basketball player but prefers swimming.

The omission of one pronoun makes the difference. In my opinion, it’s a better sentence.

Readers expect words to flow a certain way, but no author gets it right all the time. If you choose to break a grammatical rule, be consistent about it. Authors must know the rules to break them with style.

Most readers are not editors. They will either love or hate your work based on your voice, but they won’t know why. Voice is how you break the rules, but you must understand what you are doing. You must do it deliberately and do it consistently. Readers do notice inconsistencies.

Craft your work to make it say what you mean, in the way you want it said. Sometimes you will use commas in places where they ordinarily aren’t used. You will do this to make things clear. Conversely, you will omit them for the same reason.

If the editor you hired asks you to change something you did deliberately, you are the author.

Raymond chandler quote split infinitivesExplain why you want that particular grammatical no-no to stand, and your editor will most likely understand. If you know the rule you are breaking, you will be better able to explain why you are doing so.

Most good editors will do as you ask, but you must be prepared to break that rule consistently.

Much of what we consider powerful writing violates a number of grammar rules, but the author broke that rule in every sentence. Once the reader gets the feel for the author’s style, they don’t notice it.

I always think we are better for having read their work.


Previous posts in this series:

How the Written universe works part 1: the connecting particle 

How the Written universe works part 2: the physics of conversation 

How the Written Universe Works part 3: Lay, Lie, Laid

How the Written Universe Works part 4: Relativity and Possessives #amwriting

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Hyphen, Em Dash, En Dash (revisited) #amwritng

We’re halfway through week 2 of National Novel Writing Month. Today we’re continuing our review the rules for common punctuation. This essay first posted on Feb 6, 2019. As always, if you’re already up on these rules, thank you for stopping by and happy writing!


Over the years, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes.

I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and my first drafts can be peppered with them. Em dashes are a kind of author’s crutch because it is easy to rely on them.

Trust me, readers find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph. Some editors don’t want to see one on every page. Their point of view is that the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. As a tool, it’s useful as a way to emphasize certain ideas, and can also be used to good effect in the place of a semicolon. In my opinion, the em dash should be used sparingly to be most effective.

So, what is the difference between the hyphen and the em dash? Aren’t they the same thing?

Not at all. Hyphens are used to join two words to create a compound word. Never use a hyphen in the place of an em dash or en dash.

  • Time-saving
  • Twenty-one

Hyphens are not always necessary. If the meaning of a compound adjective is perfectly clear when written as two separate words, a hyphen is not necessary. If its meaning is understood when written as one word and common usage writes it as one word, again, a hyphen is not necessary. (See my post on Hyphens and Compound Words).

Dashes are not hyphens and are used in several ways. One kind of dash that is frequently used is the ‘en dash,’ which is the width of an ‘n.’ UK usage frequently employs the en dash in the place of the em dash.

In US usage, En dashes join two numbers that are written numerically, not spelled. To insert an en dash in a Word document: type a single hyphen between two words, with a space on either side of it:

1994 – 1996 (1994SpaceHyphenSpace1996) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the hyphen will form an en dash.

The dash we are discussing today is the ‘em dash,’ which is the width of an ‘m.’

An em dash (—)   is a versatile punctuation mark. It is the width of an ‘m,’ hence the name. An em dash can serve as a comma. It does the same task as parentheses and serves the same purpose as a colon when used in the narrative.

Misty Barnett—my dog walker—loves to tango.

Tonight’s featured dances—the foxtrot, the waltz, and the Basque Sword Dance.

Used in these situations, the em dash feels less formal than a colon. This shift in usage is all about economics. The reading public drives our written language. Their preference for books with narratives light on formality is why colons are no longer used in narrative prose.

To insert an em dash in a Word document: type two hyphens next to each other without any space between the words or hyphens:

A—B (LetterHyphenHyphenLetter) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the two hyphens will form an em dash.

The em dash can be more emphatic than a comma, yet not as firm a stop as the period. It sets apart any clause bracketed by them—such as this clause—which can easily be overdone.

Their main use in my work is in dialogue. Most editors will agree that current accepted practice for fiction is to not use semicolons in dialogue. Instead, we use the em dash to join short related independent clauses. Used wisely, they can smooth a choppy conversation and make it more normal sounding. A good writer will not pepper their manuscript with them.

In the rush of getting a first draft committed to paper, we use certain words and symbols as a kind of shorthand to ourselves for later, and the emdash can be one of them. When we are making revisions, we need to be alert and reword as much as we can to do without them. Used too exuberantly, they can create a mish-mash of run-on sentences where brevity would be a better choice.

So, what are these alternative forms of punctuation to create that dramatic pause? Be creative with your word choices, phrase things carefully, and see if one of these will work as well or better:

  • PERIOD = a full stop. End of Sentence. That’s all folks.
  • SEMICOLON: Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two sentences where the conjunction has been left out. Call me tomorrow; we’ll go dancing then. (The AND has been left out.) As I said, the semicolon has fallen out of favor with many editors for dialogue. Also, many people don’t understand how to use them. However, I have nothing against them when they are used properly.
  • COMMA:  We purchased apples, oranges, and bananas.

Authors and editors become habituated to using emdashes without thinking. After a while, the little finger just hits that hyphen key twice whenever the mind pauses.

I have mentioned this wonderful quote before, which is from a blog post called “The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash.”  The post was written by the witty Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic:

“What’s the matter with an em dash or two, you ask?—or so I like to imagine. What’s not to like about a sentence that explores in full all the punctuational options—sometimes a dash, sometimes an ellipsis, sometimes a nice semicolon at just the right moment—in order to seem more complex and syntactically interesting, to reach its full potential? Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?”

Write the way you want to, use em dashes where you think they work best, and rely on proper punctuation for the rest of your narrative.

Happy writing!


Credits and Attributions:

“The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash”  by Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic 24 May 2011 (accessed 11 March 2018).

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The Em Dash— #amwriting

Over the years, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes.

I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and my first drafts can be peppered with them. Em dashes are a kind of author’s crutch because it is easy to rely on them.

Trust me, readers find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph. Some editors don’t want to see one on every page. Their point of view is that the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. As a tool, it’s useful as a way to emphasize certain ideas, and can also be used to good effect in the place of a semicolon. In my opinion, the em dash should be used sparingly to be most effective.

So, what is the difference between the hyphen and the em dash? Aren’t they the same thing?

Not at all. Hyphens are used to join two words to create a compound word. Never use a hyphen in the place of an em dash or en dash.

  • Time-saving
  • Twenty-one

Hyphens are not always necessary. If the meaning of a compound adjective is perfectly clear when written as two separate words, a hyphen is not necessary. If its meaning is understood when written as one word and common usage writes it as one word, again, a hyphen is not necessary.

Dashes are not hyphens and are used in several ways. One kind of dash that is frequently used is the ‘en dash,’ which is the width of an ‘n.’ UK usage frequently employs the en dash in the place of the em dash.

In US usage, En dashes join two numbers that are written numerically, not spelled. To insert an en dash in a Word document: type a single hyphen between two words, with a space on either side of it:

1994 – 1996 (1994SpaceHyphenSpace1996) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the hyphen will form an en dash.

The dash we are discussing today is the ‘em dash,’ which is the width of an ‘m.’

An em dash (—)   is a versatile punctuation mark. It is the width of an ‘m,’ hence the name. An em dash can serve as a comma. It does the same task as parentheses and serves the same purpose as a colon when used in the narrative.

Misty Barnett—my dog walker—loves to tango.

Tonight’s featured dances—the foxtrot, the waltz, and the Basque Sword Dance.

Used in these situations, the em dash feels less formal than a colon. This shift in usage is all about economics. The reading public drives our written language. Their preference for books with narratives light on formality is why colons are no longer used in narrative prose.

To insert an em dash in a Word document: type two hyphens next to each other without any space between the words or hyphens:

A—B (LetterHyphenHyphenLetter) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the two hyphens will form an em dash.

The em dash can be more emphatic than a comma, yet not as firm a stop as the period. It sets apart any clause bracketed by them—such as this clause—which can easily be overdone.

Their main use in my work is in dialogue. Most editors will agree that current accepted practice for fiction is to not use semicolons in dialogue. Instead, we use the em dash to join short related independent clauses. Used wisely, they can smooth a choppy conversation and make it more normal sounding. A good writer will not pepper their manuscript with them.

In the rush of getting a first draft committed to paper, we use certain words and symbols as a kind of shorthand to ourselves for later, and the emdash can be one of them. When we are making revisions, we need to be alert and reword as much as we can to do without them. Used too exuberantly, they can create a mish-mash of run-on sentences where brevity would be a better choice.

So, what are these alternative forms of punctuation to create that dramatic pause? Be creative with your word choices, phrase things carefully, and see if one of these will work as well or better:

  • PERIOD = a full stop. End of Sentence. That’s all folks.
  • SEMICOLON: Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two sentences where the conjunction has been left out.Call me tomorrow; we’ll go dancing then. (The AND has been left out.) As I said, the semicolon has fallen out of favor with many editors for dialogue. Also, many people don’t understand how to use them. However, I have nothing against them when they are used properly.
  • COMMA:  We purchased apples, oranges, and bananas.

Authors and editors become habituated to using emdashes without thinking. After a while, the little finger just hits that hyphen key twice whenever the mind pauses.

I have mentioned this wonderful quote before, which is from a blog post called “The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash.”  The post was written by the witty Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic:

“What’s the matter with an em dash or two, you ask?—or so I like to imagine. What’s not to like about a sentence that explores in full all the punctuational options—sometimes a dash, sometimes an ellipsis, sometimes a nice semicolon at just the right moment—in order to seem more complex and syntactically interesting, to reach its full potential? Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?”

Write the way you want to, use em dashes where you think they work best, and rely on proper punctuation for the rest of your narrative.

Happy writing!


Credits and Attributions:

“The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash”  by Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic 24 May 2011 (accessed 11 March 2018).

10 Comments

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