Understanding the Ellipsis and Dash

There are two punctuation symbols that frequently confuse writers: that of not knowing what to use or where when it comes to ellipses and hyphens.

The Ellipsis

The ellipsis is a single punctuation mark that consists of three dots – no more, no less – thus  What it is not is two, four, six or even ten dots. These three dots are not full stops (periods), they are smaller in size and spacing. Most modern word processors recognise this and, if you key in three stops with a space at the start and end, will automatically change this to the correct symbol. In Word, you can also add an ellipsis through the Insert Symbol tab, under Special Characters. You may even wish to set it to your own shortcut key. You will know you have added it correctly if you then move your cursor back over the three stops; it should jump back over all three in one move.

So, why and when is this symbol used? The ellipsis has two functions. The first as a means of showing, when citing a quotation, that word/s or even a complete sentence/s or phrase has been omitted. Use one ellipsis for each part left out. Below is an example using the second paragraph above. For clarity only, I have set the ellipses used in this article in bold.

“The ellipsis is a single punctuation mark that consists of three dots thus … These three dots are not full stops (periods)  Most word processors and computers recognise this and   automatically change this to the correct symbol.”

The second function of the ellipsis is probably the one most used by authors. It is used to denote when a thought or speech tapers off. It is also used in dialogue when a speaker stops mid sentence for one reason or another or the sentence is left unfinished purposefully, often leading the reader to guess what was going to be said. An ellipsis should not be used to show where dialogue has been interrupted by another speaker. That is the role of another symbol.

For example:

Do ghosts really exist? I suppose it could have been the wind, but I wonder

“We can’t use that door. The only way is through ” Claude stopped to draw breath.

Another query is that of spacing and punctuation before and after an ellipsis. It’s a matter of preference. Some publishers and writers do, others do not include full stops or commas before or after if within dialogue, the symbol being deemed adequate for purpose, although a question mark should be included if the phrase constitutes a direct question. Whether you put a single word space either side of the ellipsis is, again, entirely a matter of choice. There is nothing wrong in putting the symbol directly before or after a word – with no spacing. The rule is always, whatever your or your publisher’s preference with regard to spacing and punctuation surrounding this and other symbols, be consistent throughout your document.

“I mean What I meant to say was Don’t do it.”  “You don’t mean ?”

The Dash

You might not have realised it but there are three main types of dashes: the hyphen, the single, ordinary small dash used to conjoin words, as in multipurpose; the en dash, so named as it takes up the space of the letter N; and the longer em dash named (you’ve guessed it!) as it takes up the space of the letter M. So why three types? Each has a different function.

The Hyphen

The use of the small hyphen is obvious, although I would point out that many words that once upon a time would have been hyphenated are nowadays often written as one complete word. This is fine except it can cause a visual angst in eBook reading and in fully justified text, as a long word will often be forced to jump to the next line, dragging out the previous sentence with long word spaces; not a pretty sight. This is why many print publishers use hyphens at the end of lines to wrap the word. I expect you are so used to seeing them you hardly notice they are there. These are called soft hyphens, as they will disappear if the text is amended. They are often referred to as automatic hyphens. With DTP, the use of the soft/automatic hyphen has diminished somewhat. If you are formatting for eBooks, avoid automatic hyphenation.

The En and the Em Dash

The en dash is used to show ranges, be it in numbers, figures, places:  pages 113; 37 miles; northsouth (note no space between). In essence, it replaces the word “to”. Its second function is one I have used in this article – the dash between two phrases, with a single word space either side. This has become its secondary and more popular function when previously that was, and still is, the role of the em dash.

In many published books you will see the em dash used for this purpose and always without spacing. As with the ellipsis, these symbols can be added by typing a double or triple hyphen or through the Insert Symbol, Special Characters tab.

The second use of the em dash is in dialogue when a speaker is interrupted by another speaker:

“You can’t seriously believe that? I told you before I
“I don’t care what you said. I’m telling you now,” Peter interrupted.

It is perfectly acceptable, and indeed recommended in eBook publishing, to use an unspaced en dash for this purpose. Kindle recognises both en and em dashes but many other formats do not, particularly if you are inclined to use non standard or fancy fonts.


About Kit Domino

Author and acrylic artist who loves travel, gardening, nature, good food and wine and a whole more besides.
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One Response to Understanding the Ellipsis and Dash

  1. Excellent post! As a writer I am so often confused by these dashes. I use my “Woe is I” religiously when I write, yet I am constantly getting them mixed up.

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