Monday, August 4, 2014


By Andrea Merrell

When I attended my first critique group, I had never heard of an en dash or em dash. The good old hyphen had always worked well for me. As I soon learned, that is not the case in the writing and publishing industry.

It was time to learn to use them properly.

En Dash
  • En dash: Used mainly for connecting inclusive numbers, such as dates and time.
Example: 1995 – 1997
Example:  Pages 22 – 28

Em Dash
  • Em dash: A break in thought or interruption in dialogue. Also used to set off a word or phrase that explains or amplifies.
Example: Show—don’t tell.
Example: “Susie, I don’t agree with—“
                “What do you mean you don’t agree?”

When dialogue is broken by narrative, the em dashes go outside the quotation marks.
Example: “The publisher turned down my proposal, but”—she said tearfully—“he gave me some very constructive advice.”

Another term introduced to me by my critique group was ellipses. I had been using it without knowing what it was—or how to use it properly. Sometimes I would get carried away and use six or eight for emphasis. A bad habit, just like exclamation points and quotation marks.

  • Ellipses: Used when omitting a word, phrase, or line from a quoted passage. Used when a line of dialogue trails off. Also indicates faltering or fragmented speech.
Example: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth … a new nation.”
Example:  “I’m so busy there’s no time to …”
Example: “But Sally, I won’t … I mean ... I can’t go with you.”
  • Use only three.
  • Spacing can vary according to style sheets and guidelines for various venues. While some use space, dot, dot, dot, space ( … ), others typically use space, dot, space, dot, space, dot, space ( . . . ). Whatever you use, be consistent throughout your manuscript.
Learn to use these dashes and dots correctly and don't overuse them. 

How about you? What are your most common punctuation problems? We would love to hear from you. Be sure to join us next Monday when Denise Loock shares her views on the semicolon.


(Photos courtesy of and 
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  1. Thank you for making this so clear, Andrea. Especially the en and em dashes.

    1. My pleasure, Sherry. Those little dashes can be very confusing. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I agree with Sherry, thank you. But, I do have one question. How do you make the en and em dashes?

    1. There are several ways to do it, depending on what version of Word you have. Sorry . . . I have no idea how to make them on a Mac. :) For an em dash, the easiest way is to type a word, two hyphens with no space, then your next word (wordhyphenhyphenword). After you type the second word and then the space bar, your computer should automatically convert the hyphens into an em dash. If that doesn't work, you can always type your wordhyphenhyphen, then hit enter. Your computer will create an em dash and you can space your text back up to the previous line and add your next word.

      With the en dash, do the same thing, but leave a space on either side of the hyphens (word hyphenhyphen word).

      It's not as complicated as it sounds, but it can be tricky until you get the hang of it. You can also Google "How to make an en or em dash" on both a Mac and PC. If all else fails, e-mail me at and I'll walk you through it. Thanks so much for stopping by.

      If someone else has a suggestion, please leave a comment and add to the conversation.


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