Wednesday, April 14, 2010

AdminEssay: A Dash of This and a Dash of That

A Dash of This and a Dash of That

Today’s article is going to be a little different from the others. I am going to give you some information about hyphens, dashes, and ellipses. What makes them different from commas, periods, and semicolons? While there are certain grammar and punctuation rules that we’ll always choose to use with some interpretation of our own, these three punctuation marks are some of those for which you will see a significant amount of diversity of usage. I am going to present suggested rules for usage—guidelines, if you will. From there, you can choose to do with them as you wish. My one piece of advice, regardless, is this: Be consistent. Whether you follow the below rules to a T or modify them slightly, pick one method and stick with it for all your works.

For all three topics, I will first focus on the Why and When and then get into the How.

Up first, hyphens and dashes...

The world of hyphens and dashes is far more complicated than most of us realize, and for simplicity’s sake, I am going to focus just on two types of little horizontal lines today, and not do something mean like tell you that the line you use between two numbers (i.e., twenty-three) and the one you use in a sports score (i.e., 35–7) is different. No, we’ll stick with the basics. At the bottom of the article, I’ll list some resources if you’re really interested in the nitty-gritties.

The Hyphen

We’ll start with the hyphen. There are a number of common situations in which to use hyphens, with which we’re probably all familiar (e.g., to separate compound numbers such as forty-three or one hundred twenty-five; to separate letters when spelling out a word: “My name is Elle. It’s pronounced like the letter L, but spelled e-l-l-e.”). But there are other uses that can be more problematic.

When to use a hyphen:
  • To join two or more words that function as a single adjective before a noun (i.e., “phrasal adjective”):
    • Ex: Whenever the Cullens move, Edward always makes sure his well-loved and often-played piano safely makes the trip.
    • Ex: He poured her some of the still-warm coffee.
  • Exception 1:
    Do not hyphenate the adjective-forming words if they come after the noun.
    • Ex: No one could say that Edward’s piano wasn’t well loved; he often played for three or four hours a day.
    • Ex: Can you please check to see if the coffee is still warm?
  • Exception 2:
    Do not hyphenate a two-word phrase if the first word is an adverb ending with “ly.”
    • Ex: She was wearing a barely there dress.
    • Ex: They had freshly baked bread with dinner.
  • To distinguish two similar-looking words:
    • Ex: When I resigned my position, they had me re-sign some papers I had filled out earlier.
    • Ex: When the teacher recovered from her illness, she had to re-cover the history of the Civil War with her class.
  • With some prefixes (e.g., all-, co-, ex-, and great-):
    • Ex: Her love suffocated him like an all-consuming fire.
    • Ex: Some said the brother and sister were co-dependent and couldn’t go anywhere without each other.
    • Ex: Luckily, I saw my ex-boyfriend before he saw me, and I was able to hide until he was gone.
How to make/use a hyphen:
A hyphen is the shortest horizontal bar on your keyboard. You only need one. When you use it, there should be no spaces between it and the words or numbers on either side of it. Please see examples above.

The Dash

No, not that Em.
There is more than one type of dash, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the em dash, and going forward, I’ll refer to it with just “dash.”

Strunk and White have this to say about the dash: “A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.”

While commas and periods are essential punctuation marks (we can’t write anything without them), I consider dashes to be sort of optional—in many cases in which you will see an author use a dash, another form of punctuation could also have worked. Using dashes has a lot to do with personal style. Below, I’ll lay out some guidelines in case you choose to use them.

As a general rule, don’t use more than two dashes in any given sentence.

When to use a dash:
  • To link together two related independent clauses. In this case, a dash is less formal than a semicolon.
    • Ex: I hope we leave for dinner soon—I’m starving!
  • To set off a parenthetical phrase. Often, commas or parentheses would serve the same purpose. (More about that later.)
    • Ex: It’s that time of day—just after lunch—when I feel like taking a nap.
  • To set off a long appositive. These often replace colons, or possibly commas that aren’t strong enough.
    • Ex: Most of Twilight takes place in Forks—a small, rainy town on the Olympic Peninsula in the northwestern part of the United States.
    • Ex: Most of the Cullens—specifically Carlisle, Esme, Edward, Rosalie, and Emmett—had lived in this region before.
  • To summarize a list or idea, or separate a subject from a pronoun. Another situation in which a colon or semicolon (or even a period) might work.
    • Ex: Tomorrow is a big day—the new puppy comes home!
    • Ex: Empty beer glasses, the drunk guy in the corner, the clock showing two in the morning—it is time to go home.
    • Ex: Vacation—oh how I’ve yearned for you.
  • To indicate a sudden break in thought. An ellipsis can also usually be used in this case.
    • Ex: “I thought we were going out for—no, never mind. I’m not hungry.”
    • Ex: “I don’t know!” she said. “They were talking and laughing and then—” We all waited for her to complete her thought.
  • Note:
    If a dash precedes a dialogue tag, use a comma between the dash and end quotes.
    • Ex: “Hey, have you seen my—,” I started before he cut me off.
Parenthetical phrases and when to use parentheses, commas, or dashes?
Dr. Rebecca Elliott’s Painless Grammar (my favorite go-to grammar book) has such a good, easy way of explaining this, that I will just quote what she wrote:

“Think of parentheses as hiding information (de-emphasizing it) while dashes highlight information—emphasizing it. Think of commas as being matter-of-fact, neither highlighting nor hiding information. If the parenthetical information is very closely related to the sentence, commas are usually better. If the parenthetical information is not so closely related, dashes and parentheses are usually better.” - Page 110

In all of the following examples, you could use any of the three methods, but I’ve tried to pick examples that follow Dr. Elliott’s suggestions.
  • Ex: For dinner tonight, rather than go hunt by the coast (which we did last night), we’ll head toward the mountains.
  • Ex: My sister’s birthday—she’ll be thirty!—is next week.
  • Ex: I could really go for some iced coffee, with lots of milk and sugar, right about now.
How to make/use a dash:
The traditional em dash is longer than both the hyphen and en dash (which I won’t be discussing). Applications such as Microsoft Word will auto-create the dash for you if you string together two hyphens and do not put spaces between the hyphens and words.
For example, Word takes this:

My puppy--he’s the cutest puppy ever--is named Bob.

And makes it into this, as you’re typing:

My puppy—he’s the cutest puppy ever—is named Bob.

If you are using an application that will not convert the hyphens, such as gdocs, use two hyphens instead. This is commonly recognized to be an em dash.
  • Ex: For dinner tonight--if we ever get around to having it--we’re making tacos.
The Chicago Manual of Style, and a number of other resources I used as reference, uses a dash with no spaces between it and the words surrounding it. Some authors don’t like how this looks, and choose instead to use either the shorter en dash with spaces surrounding it, or two hyphens.
  • Ex: Eventually – hopefully not tonight – I am going to run out of example sentences.
  • Ex: I am really sick of the cold weather -- is spring almost here?
This is where the matter of consistency comes into play. Choose the way that works best for you, and then stick with that method from start to finish.
Your readers might forgive you for being creative with punctuation, but they won’t forgive you for being sloppy.

The Ellipsis

Ah, that little three-dot mystery, the ellipsis. Hmm, I don’t really have anything else to say, except that the plural is “ellipses.” Let’s get started.

When to use an ellipsis:
  • To indicate omission of words in a quotation:
    • Ex: “You’re worrying about all the wrong things, Bella . . . Our only fear is losing you.”
    • Ex: “You gonna back down so easy, little sister? . . . Did Edward tell you how many houses Rose and I smashed?”
  • To indicate that something that came earlier has been left out:
    • Ex: “. . . we were lost!” she was saying as I walked into the room.
  • To indicate a slow break (opposed to the fast break indicated by a dash):
    • Ex: Bella waited in the woods . . . but he never returned.
  • To indicate a slow-down in thought or conversation, or faltering or fragmented speech:
    • Ex: “Well, I was thinking . . . maybe . . . that we could go out?”
    • Ex: If he was here . . . and she was there . . . then who was that at my house?
  • Note:
    As with the dash, if an ellipsis precedes a dialogue tag, use a comma between the ellipsis and the end quotes.
    • Ex: “Oh, I’m not sure . . . ,” he said. “I checked, but we never found anything . . .”
How to make/use an ellipsis:
Most sources I checked said to use three spaced periods surrounded by spaces, as I used in the above examples. In my own writing, I create them a non-standard way by using three un-spaced periods (or four, if they come at the end of a sentence). One reason I do this is for word count purposes.

For example, Mac Word 2008 counts the following as nine words:

“Mom, this is my . . . boyfriend, Bob.”

But this is only six:

“Mom, this is my... boyfriend, Bob.”

When you live and breathe word count when participating in something like the Twilight 25 or National Novel Writing Month, how it is calculated is an important consideration.

I also prefer the way they look when they’re all bunched together.

Again, consistency is king. Pick a method and stick with it.

All right, another one down. What’s up next? I haven’t decided. If you have suggestions, please leave a comment below or send email to

Happy punctuating!
Sources used for this article:
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, p 410; Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer, p 520;
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
“English Grammar” by SparkCharts
Painless Grammar, Second Edition by Rebecca Elliott, Ph.D.
A Pocket Style Manual, Fifth Edition by Diana Hacker
The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition
The Purdue Online Writing Lab
ElleCC betas for – among others – americnxidiot, Pastiche Pen, and Project Team Beta. Her love of dashes and all other manner of punctuation is bone deep, regardless of her pesky Computer Science degree. She is currently lazing about her dining room, trying to think up ways to do awful things to unsuspecting characters.


  1. Oh. Em dashes and Elle. Loveliness.


  2. You have no idea how much I love these articles, Elle. I'm a PTB beta and sometimes its so hard finding a decent website to direct authors toward. These articles have helped so much! Thanks! xoxo

  3. Love this! Time for another grammar lesson with my teen! TY

  4. so, would it be:

    eye-fuck, eyefuck, or maybe eye--fuck. --eyefuck--? I STILL DON'T UNDERSTAND GRAMMAR.

    ps: next article should be about when to use italics versus YELLY CAPS.

  5. There is a Community College site that posts interactive grammar quizzes many of my students find helpful:

  6. Thank you , my dear. I'm sending the link to the writers I beta for right now.... <><3


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