Give me the Em-Dash

Many writers encounter special characters within writing and either don’t know how to use them or how to get their word processor system to render them properly. Yes, you can go “insert character”, however, for characters such as an ellipse and em-dashes, most word processors auto-replace.

The Ellipsis (…)

The ellipsis is a punctuation mark formed of three dots (not four, or five, but three). It is used to signify an omission of text. When used in fiction writing, it symbolizes trailed off thought or dialogue. For most word processors, the auto-correct feature will replace 3 successive fullstops (periods) with a single character. Even if the system you’re using doesn’t, most people will register the (…) symbol as an ellipsis.

The Dashes (- – —)

When critiquing and editing, I frequently see a mixture of the hyphen, en-dash and em-dash. However, each has it’s own usage and should not be mixed.

The hyphen (-) is used to amalgamate words together to form adjectives, e.g. left-handed scissors. A hyphen is also used to separate a word when it is divided across two lines, however, this has rules of its own, dividing words at the syllables.

The en-dash (–) is used to denote a range and is commonly used in non-fiction, scientific writing, e.g. 4–6 m. Some will insist that an en-dash has no spaces around it, however if you’re going to auto-generate the en-dash in MSWord, you need the spaces. (I’ll come to that in a moment.)

The em-dash (—) is more common in fiction writing. It is used for a pause or emphasis. You can insert added thought into the middle of the sentence, replacing the use of brackets. You can insert action into the middle of dialogue. It is also used to denote that dialogue was cut off in an abrupt fashion.

Note that each is a different length: – – —. The length differences is noticeable, so don’t get them mixed up.

When writing this post (directly into the WordPress editor engine), I was forced to insert each character separately using the insert character function. However, when writing in MSWord or Scrivener, I can type a double hyphen, and depending on whether I’m in MSWord and whether I include spaces around the dash or not, the word processor will automatically insert the correct symbol in its place.

If you are using MSWord, here is what you do:

If you are using Scrivener, this is what you need to know:

Em-dashes in Scrivener

There are many other special characters that are common throughout literature. In all cases, there will be a set of special keyboard strokes that will render those characters. All word-processing systems will operate in similar fashions. You just need to play around with the settings to work out what combination of characters will generate what.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

Posted in General Advice, Writing and Editing and tagged , .


    • It’s not until you see the hyphen, en-dash and em-dash lined up next to one another that you see a difference in lengths. I used the en-dash frequently when I was a scientific researcher/writer. Now that I write mainly fiction, I don’t use it so much, but it is amazing the number of people I see using a hyphen instead of the em-dash. The en-dash misuse I can forgive, especially considering what MSWord does with the auto-replace, but sorry… A hyphen is a hyphen and should never be used in place of an em-dash.

  1. One thing that my readers might find interesting to note is that some publishers, such as Baen, actually specify in their submission guidelines that all em-dashes in submitted manuscripts should be replaced with a double hyphen (–), i.e. no em-dash special characters in the manuscript. I believe they do this because of the confusion that exists surrounding the length of the em-dash compared to the en-dash.

  2. Ah!!! NOW I get it. Firstly, I didn’t know why Word sometimes made a hyphen longer and sometimes it didn’t. Secondly I didn’t know the difference between the en-dash and em-dash even though I studied Creative Writing. Thanks for shedding some light on this! Could I simply run a ‘Find and Replace’ for my MS to replace en-dashes with em-dashes or would that not work?

    • Yes, a search and replace between em-dashes and en-dashes will work. What you need to do is ensure that in “replace” field you enter the correct character. When I’ve had to do this, I inserted into my text a special character (normally em-dash), then copy and paste into the “replace” field. Here’s another hint: if you have the en-dash, or character you want replaced highlighted at the time that you open a search-and-replace box, Word will automatically insert it into the “find” field.

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