Hyphens, Em Dashes, En Dashes, and Ellipses

August 15, 2022

Red punctuation marks on white paper. Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com.

Hey folks!

When this goes live, I’ll be on week two of my vacation. I wrote this before week one, so I have no idea what the vacation has been like. I’m hoping for lots of ice cream if I’m being honest 😛

As for pre-vacation me, she thought writing about punctuation would be a good subject for this week. So without further ado . . .

Punctuation can be hard to get sometimes, and some marks prove trickier than others. When I’m editing, there are four in particular that I routinely come across that either need to be corrected or that spur a discussion. Because part of why some marks are tricky is simply that different style manuals “enforce” different formatting for them.

When I edit, I follow the Chicago Manual of Style – it’s what most American publishing companies use when making their own house guides (i.e. the rules that their editors adhere to when possible). Since I mostly edit poetry and stories, it’s what I recommend my authors follow, too.

(Note that following CMOS isn’t necessarily a requirement; consistency within a single book/story is. That’s where the discussions come in, but more on that later.)

So, what four marks do I deal with most? (Besides commas. They’re their own beast.)


One of the biggest issues for editors and writers alike is figuring out when to use a hyphen.

First of all, let’s quickly cover three points of terminology:

  1. Open compounds don’t take hyphens but do take a space (ex. high school)
  2. Closed compounds don’t take hyphens or a space (ex. notebook)
  3. Hyphenated compounds, well, take a hyphen (ex. self-service)

First and foremost, check a dictionary. CMOS recommends using Merriam-Webster, which is the dictionary I use for American English (Cambridge is a good choice for British). The way it appears in the dictionary is how it should appear in the text.

However, I find the biggest problem arises when dealing with adjectives. Because sometimes, even open compounds become hyphenated in specific contexts (a common one I see is in between. “I’m in between jobs” but “I’m in an in-between state).

So, how do you know if you should hyphenate your adjectives? Ask yourself the following two questions:

When you rearrange the elements of the sentences, does it still convey what you mean? If it doesn’t, it might need a hyphen.

“The chilly blue ice” can be rearranged to “The blue ice is chilly.” If that’s your meaning, keep the hyphen out.

However, if you mean the ice is the colour chilly blue, you need a hyphen to maintain the right context: “The chilly-blue ice.”

Will your meaning remain intact without the hyphen, or could it be confused for something else?

A “red pepper sauce” doesn’t need a hyphen because clarity is already in place. We know what a “red pepper” is, and misreading it as “a pepper sauce that’s red” doesn’t negatively impact understanding.

But a “tomato-rice sauce” needs one when referring to a sauce made of tomato and rice, because without it, it could mean a sauce for rice made of tomatoes.

Know that there are a few exceptions to hyphenation rules. (For example, you never hyphenate an adverb ending in “ly,” partially because confusion will never arise from a lack of hyphen. For example, you know what “gorgeously painted canvases” means without a hyphen.) But if you keep these tips in mind, you should be good for most of your hyphenation scenarios!

Em dashes

The em dash – not something you often see on websites. Which is why that sentence doesn’t include one when it would in a book. An em dash is essentially just a longer hyphen in appearance; in fact, it’s the length of a traditionally printed capital M. In American standard printing, the em dash is used in place of other punctuation marks for emphasis or readability, and used as an interrupter in dialogue.

Here’s an example of each (with a proper em dash for visual):

In place of other punctuation marks: She likes fantasy novels—like Serpent & Dove, Stardust, and Lord of the Rings—more than horror. (Here, the em dashes could have been parentheses, but the em dash allows for there to be more emphasis on the content surrounding it. Parentheses tend to encourage readers to skim what’s inside. Note that it can also replace commas, colons, and semicolons as the situation calls for it.)

Interrupter in dialogue: “But you said—” “No, I didn’t.” (The em dash indicates that the second speaker abruptly cut off the first mid-sentence.)

Note how there are no spaces around an em dash when following CMOS. Other guides might call for spaces, and other forms of English – such as British – might call for an entirely different punctuation mark altogether.

En dashes

An en dash is the length of a traditionally printed capital N, making it longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash. The most common use for en dashes is in circumstances denoting a span. This can be a span of pages, time, distance, etc. Essentially, it replaces the “to” in such sentences (unless the sentence is written in a way that doesn’t allow it. I’ll give you an example below).

Like an em dash, no spaces go around the en dash.

The score was 3–17.
We took the Ottawa–Halifax flight.
Read pages 40–60.
The appointment is 1–2 p.m.

But not: The appointment is from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. When you have the structure “from . . . to” or the like, the structure needs to remain parallel, meaning you can’t use a symbol for one and a word for another. Both must remain spelled out.


Ellipses are those triple points that denote missing text in quotations or a trailing off of thought in dialogue. When following CMOS, format ellipses with a space before, between, and after each dot (unless immediately followed or preceded by another punctuation mark, such as a quotation mark). If possible, use nonbreaking spaces between the dots (your processor should have the feature) – this ensures that the ellipsis points won’t be broken up when they come at the end or start of a line.

Example: “I don’t know . . .” she said.


When it comes to hyphens, it’s more of a matter of correcting than discussing, unless I need clarification on what a writer is conveying (like in a “chilly blue ice” situation). However, the other three are flexible.

I say this because I work primarily with self-publishers. Since they don’t have to adhere to a house style, some of the CMOS rules and guidelines become even more flexible than they otherwise could be. The important thing is consistency. So if you really don’t like having the spaces between the ellipsis points, that’s ok. Some manuals actually prefer for there to not be spaces. Want a space before and after the em dash? Feel free to mention that to me. But in circumstances like this, I do always make sure to point out to my clients – especially those publishing in the US – that the standard is spaces between the points and no spaces around em dashes. The final decision is up to them, but I still want them informed before coming to that decision.

Did you know these CMOS standards before this post?

And are you ready to find an editor to help you with these punctuation points? Send me a message! I’d be happy to work with you 🙂

Published by Kaila Desjardins

Freelance editor, fiction writer, proud nerd.

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