The hyphen, the en dash, the em dash, and the ellipsIs. Probably the least understood (after the comma!) members of Team Punctuation. Also the ones I don’t often see used correctly.
I’ll do my best to keep it simple and identify a few main simple rules.
This is the smallest of the dash family. It’s the key on your numbers row on your keyboard to the right of the zero and shares its place with the underscore character. When is it used?
- In compound adjectives:
white-haired lady, red-faced man, good-looking teenager, eighteenth-century furniture, up-to-date news, well-known actress. But remember the latter two are not hyphenated in the following instances:
The news was up to date. The actress is well known.
- With all words beginning ‘self’ followed by a noun:
- With prefixes such as auto, anti, semi, non—but there are no hard and fast rules on this one, so it’s always—always—best to check in the dictionary. (E.g., semicircle, autobiography are not hyphenated)
- Numbers: twenty-one, thirty-three
There is never a space before or after a hyphen, unless it’s ‘hanging’, eg:
- The teacher’s class consisted of three- and four-year-olds.
The En Dash
The hyphen’s slightly bigger brother is the en dash.
Unfortunately, there is no en dash symbol on our keyboards. If you have a number pad to the right of your Querty keyboard, then the en dash can be inserted using Alt and 0150. Or it can be inserted using Insert/Symbol and it can be found under the Special Characters tab. Alternatively, if you are feeling very brave, you can create your own shortcut key.
- The en dash is used to connect a number range, eg: Pages 255–344, World War II (1939–1945)
- An unfinished range of numbers: Cathy Speight (1954–)
Again, no spaces before or after this character.
The Em Dash
The big brother of the family. Again Mr Gates hasn’t provided us with a nice handy key for the em dash. It’s a matter of using Insert/Symbol/Special Character, or with the numeric keypad Alt plus 0151, or creating your own shortcut. Another way is by typing two hyphens, then pressing enter. The two hyphens then make the em dash. However, you’ve then got a new paragraph, so you have to backspace. You’ve achieved the end result, but it’s a bit of a palaver. None of the methods to get the em dash is perfect, so choose what works best for you.
The em dash can replace a comma (where a longer break is needed), colons, or parentheses, e.g.:
- Steve Hise—also known as the Evil Mastermind—gave extra gruel portions to his staff on IU’s anniversary.
- Indies Unlimited is made up of a first-class team of authors—many are topping Amazon’s best-sellers’ list.
- “I—I don’t know what to do,” she stammered.
It’s also used in interrupted dialogue, in the middle or at the end:
- “I think I’ll go to the shops later and buy myself a dress for—oh no, it’s started to rain!”
- “Let’s have a picnic today since the weather’s fine and my—“ The front doorbell rang before Jane could finish.
No spacing before or after the em dash.
The ellipsis is used when quoting from a larger body of material to indicate omissions in that quote. No key for this one either, but it can be inserted using Ctrl plus Alt plus the period. Or Insert-Symbol-Special Characters.
So how do we use the ellipsis? I’m going to quote a passage from ‘Upgrade’. (I have to—can’t risk gruel through a straw again, I might disappear down a drainhole). But I’m going to leave a bit out (sorry EM):
- “Simmons was Brent’s right-hand man at the company…Brent had allowed Simmons a great deal of autonomy, but lately,…legal work outside the firm. The company was poised…with Microsoft went through.”
There doesn’t seem to be a hard-and-fast rule about spaces before and after the ellipsis or even between the dots that make up the ellipsis. CMOS likes a space between each dot but no preceding or succeeding space. Whatever you choose, be consistent.
The ellipsis is also used to denote a pause or unspoken words, especially in dialogue:
- “I was wondering…” said Chris dreamily, “if I should write another book.”
- “I was really tempted by that chocolate gâteau at the pâtisserie, but…well…you know, a minute on the lips is a lifetime on the hips!”
And that, in a nutshell, is it.
Easy, isn’t it?