Ellipses and Dashes: How to Use Popular Pauses
Like in speech, a pause can be essential to conveying the importance of a phrase or point in your writing. Because of this, writers should be aware of the differences between the variety of punctuation marks used to show pauses. Two of the most commonly used and misused punctuation marks I see as a creative writing copy editor are ellipses and dashes.
Rules for Ellipses
Ellipses are a series of three periods that signal the omission of a word, phrase, or more. They are NOT used for a pause. They do NOT replace a comma. Ellipses have two common uses: academic quotes and dialogue.
1. Academic Ellipses
In academic writing, ellipses are used when an author is quoting a portion of another document. The ellipse lets the reader know the quote is not the entire piece. I use these on occasion in my blogs when I provide writing examples from published stories. When reviewing the writing techniques in Versailles by Kathyrn Davis, I cut a bit of description:
Purposefully oppressive, the vestibule – echoey, claustrophobic . . . At the foot of the staircase the whole thing opens wide, like breath expelled after passing a graveyard (55).
The echoey, claustrophobic description goes on for two more lines, and I did not include it because the point I was making had to do with the stairway being gone. I included the ellipse to let my readers know there is more description between the two sentences I quoted.
2. Dialogue Ellipses
In dialogue, ellipses are used to show a character’s speech is trailing off or that they left the sentence incomplete. They do not show pauses between words or statements. For example:
I managed a sheepish smile and read, “They took her beautiful clothes away from her, dressed her in an old gray smock, and gave her wooden shoes . . .”
“I assume you encountered them before . . ." The detective’s words trail off.
The first example shows the character is continuing to read from a book in class, so the author doesn’t have to write out the whole passage and bore the reader. The second example shows a detective unsure what words to use to describe an event, so he trails off and doesn’t complete the sentence.
I follow the Chicago Manual of Style, which means I put spaces between the periods in my ellipses. I prefer this elongated look. However, other style guides do not put spaces between the periods. Both are correct. Authors can choose their style guide, but know that most publishers use Chicago.
Three Types of Dashes
Hyphens are the short dash used in compound words and to separate the numbers of a phone number. Think of them as combiners. They take two words or numbers that would normally be thought of as separate entities and combine them into one. For example:
555 123 4567 is a list of three different numbers.
555-123-4567 is one phone number.
“Open mouthed” means an open mouth.
“Open-mouthed” could mean a literal open mouth or it could mean speechlessness, shock, and/or amazed.
To create a hyphen, press the minus sign on your keyboard once. A hyphen is not bracketed by spaces. Hyphens are often misused in place of en dashes.
2. En Dashes
En dashes are slightly longer than hyphens and are used to show a connection between the words they join. Whereas hyphens combine two numbers or words into a single number or concept, en dashes connect two separate parts. En dashes got their name because they are the width of the letter “n.” The most common use of en dash is for number ranges, where they replace the word “to.” En dashes are also used to differentiate sides in a competition or conflict in a written report. This looks like:
Prolific mystery writer Agatha Christie lived from 1890 to 1976.
Prolific mystery writer Agatha Christie lived from 1890–1976.
The Colorado Rockies won 8–6.
The relentless liberal–conservative debates can be exhausting.
Note how there are no spaces between the en dash and the items it connects. Until recent years, en dashes were rarely bracketed by spaces. However, lately en dashes with two spaces are replacing the longer em dash. This change is largely due to ereaders. The spaces around the en dash prevent awkward line breaks when readers adjust text sizes on their devices. Before ereaders gained popularity, the only time en dashes and spaces were used together was to split words for line breaks. In these instances, en dashes are followed by a space, but not preceded by one:
Denver’s Botanical Gardens are more than a home for hundreds of butterflies, they also contain a large inverte- brate zoo.
To create an en dash in Microsoft Word, write the first item being connected, hit the minus sign twice, and write the second item. After you click the spacebar to begin the next word, the two hyphens should automatically combine into a single en dash.
3. Em Dashes
Em dashes are the longest of the common dashes (I won’t be covering 2-em and 3-em dashes in this article) and are so named because they are the width of the letter “m.” Em dashes are the most versatile, nuanced, and stylized of the dashes. Whether or not an author chooses to use an em dash is completely up to them and can become a part of their signature. Em dashes can be used instead of parentheses, commas, colons, and ellipses.
Colons introduce a restatement, explanation, list/series, or some other amplification of the sentence’s point (to learn more about them read Colons and Semicolons: Not Just for Emojis). Parentheses often offer an aside or explanation of the surrounding text. The type of comma em dashes can replace are also interruptions in the sentence. While hyphens and en dashes form connections, em dashes indicate a break in thought. All of these are best realized through examples.
Explanation: Angelo screamed as he passed through the portal and read the card: JINNI. OR Angelo screamed as he passed through the portal and read the card—JINNI.
Interruption: She sighed and closed her dark eyes, as if she tried to press the memory of those days of ritual away, something I knew neither of us could do. OR (something I knew neither of us could do). OR —something I knew neither of us could do.
Word Replacement: “I assume you encountered them before . . ." OR “I assume you encountered them before—"
Again, note there are no spaces bracketing the em dash. An em dash is never surrounded by spaces. To create an em dash in Microsoft Word is a bit more difficult. If you have a full keyboard, you can use Alt+Ctrl+-, but if you have a laptop, you may need select the em dash from the symbol chart. If you wish to replace an em dash with an en dash, do this:
He passed through the portal and read the card—JINNI.
He passed through the portal and read the card – JINNI.
Be aware the en dash used as an em dash is a new writing style and might not be acceptable everywhere. If you’re working with a copy editor, let them know which you prefer.
Thoughts on Ellipses and DASHES from a Copy Editor
I know punctuation isn’t the most exciting or interesting – for most people – writing topic to study. However, it is vital that writers understand the basics. Even though the majority of the population probably can’t explain what exactly an ellipses represents, they still understand it at a subconscious level. They will recognize when punctuation is being used incorrectly and can become confused or annoyed.
Plus, many copy editors charge by the hour. If you understand the rules of grammar and punctuation and make an effort to use them in your writing, you will save money on your copy edits. If you’re traditionally publishing, understand agents, acquiring editors, and publishers prefer well-written pieces and have been known to nix submissions for poor punctuation and grammar.
Now that you have a better understanding of the uses of ellipses and dashes, it’s time to test them. Try incorporating a few into your current work in progress and see what it does for the story. Experiment to learn how ellipse and dashes can Ignite Your Ink.
When do you use ellipses and dashes? Post your answers and any questions in the comments section.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.