Thursday, 24 September 2009

Dashes And Ellipses

Better late than never, we are now celebrating National Punctuation Day while simultaneously giving me a chance to indulge in a couple of my favourite obsessions: nitpicking, and dashes (and don't get me started on semicolons or we'll have to extend the event to last all week). This post first appeared on my other blog, The Self-Publishing Review, which is why it already has a few comments attached to it.

Somewhere in one of my comments, Sally has asked me for some more information about dashes and ellipses. Do, therefore, please blame her for the following rather boring post.

It's difficult to give exact rules for the correct usage for either the dash or the ellipsis as much depends on house style: the most important rule to remember is to be consistent. Choose one way and stick to it throughout your work. Use a "find and replace" to locate all examples once you've finished, just to ensure your consistency. And once you've done that don't get into a lather about them, as so much depends on the editor or publisher you're working with.

For the ellipsis, the usual convention is that it has a space after, but not before, or between each individual dot; and that if one ends a sentence, then you add a full stop so you get four dots in a row, and that full stop will naturally necessitate that a capital letter follows. So we use ellipses like this in the middle of a sentence... and like this at the end.... Ellipses indicate a trailing off (for example, in speech), rather than an interruption or abrupt halt, for which you use a dash.

Some houses prefer no spaces at all on either side of their ellipses and some (although happily, these are in the minority as I think it looks awful) prefer a space either side. I'm not sure which one I think is worse.

Dashes are more tricky. House style dictates, as usual. First rule is to remember that they are NOT interchangeable with hyphens, and that you need to show the difference between dashes and hyphens, usually by using two hyphens without a space between them to indicate a dash.

Whether or not you use a space either side of your dashes, like this:

text -- text

or don't, like this:


is up to you and the dictates of your style guide. I usually default to the latter, with no spaces, as it's what is preferred by the Chicago manual, which is what most American publishers default to when they're unsure.

Then you have to consider em- and en-dashes: the en and em refers to how much room they should take up on the line. The choice here is, once again, mostly a matter of house style although strictly speaking there are specific situations when each one should be used. If I'm in any doubt I usually default to the em-dash throughout rather than the en, as it's easier to differentiate from hyphens and so leads to a clearer text.

Finally, I'd ask everyone to use as few dashes and ellipses as possible as otherwise your text is going to look like the punctuation-spider has been sick all over it. Not a pretty thing, and very distracting to the reader.

There. I just hope Sally is grateful. After all--she asked.


DOT said...

If she isn't, I am. I love - dare I say - anal analyses of punctuation as I tend to be consistently inconsistent in my usage.

Sally Zigmond said...

Huge thanks. I now see I've been doing it all wrong, as well as giving that vomiting spider control of my keyboard.

Could we have more of the same please, Mr Editor? Semi-colons perchance?

Floyd M. Orr said...

I agree totally with what you have stated in this post. What you may not be aware of is the outrageous level of laziness and naivete you are soon to discover when you actually begin reviewing POD books. This is why you may have witnessed so much discussion of the subject at PODBRAM. My big issue is that no one seems to fully recognize the fact that these technical issues have practically nothing to do with the sales success, or lack thereof, of POD books! If you doubt what I am stating here, I challenge anyone to read some of the reviews at PODBRAM, and then compare these reviews to the rankings at Amazon. Although I stand behind this analysis, I also stand firm with the proprietor of this website. Punctuation, editing, and proofreading are important to make a POD book look like any other book, instead of some inferior, amateurish product. As a very experienced analyzer of such issues, I can tell you that the single biggest problem is a lack of proper proofreading. If all POD authors would simply read their manuscripts aloud to another person who is following along in the text of a second, identical copy, with the author making the corrections in the first copy as he reads, most of this issue could be eliminated. The problem is more closely related to naivete and laziness than it is to incompetence.

HelenMHunt said...

I will keep that vomiting spider in mind next time I am tempted to overuse the ellipsis.

lgould said...

I purchased the proofreading service offered by iUniverse for my novel, The Rock Star's Homecoming. I was shocked when the proofreader tagged over 200 errors in a manuscript I thought I had reviewed carefully. Hyphenated words seemed to be my main downfall. For example, according to their interpretation of current industry standards, words such as "noncommittal," "antiwar" and "multimillionaire" are non-hyphenated, while "long-haired," "late-night" and "peace-and-love" are hyphenated. Guess it doesn't always help that much to be a former English major.

The Self-Publishing Review said...

Igould, I think you were done and in your place I'd check to see if the American version of MS Word concurs with the versions that iUniverse's proofreader suggested.

I'd prefer "noncommittal," "anti-war", "multi-millionaire", "long-haired," "late-night" and "peace and love". But what do I know? I'm only an editor.

I'd say that so long as you were consistent with your use of hyphens then you could have stuck to your guns, and safely ignored those particular comments.

Jane Smith said...

If you want to submit a book to me you can now email me at "hprw at tesco dot net", putting "The Self-Publishing Review" in the subject field, and I'll send you an address to submit to.

Nicola Slade said...

Interesting post, Jane, but no way am I using TWO hyphens like that, have to say it looks awful! (Like a technical manual). One will have to do, as usual, as I have no em-dash on my keyboard. (Mind you, my publisher does alter SOME of them by substituting commas!) However, I actually like dashes and have no problem with them when I'm reading a novel.

Derek said...

"Peace and love" would be hyphenated only if used as an attributive adjectival phrase. Compare:

"That was the summer of peace and love."

"That was the peace-and-love summer."

Jane Smith said...

You're right, Nicola, two hyphens together like that do look pretty nasty. But when I type two hyphens into Word it automatically converts them into an em-dash for me, so my mss never look like that.

I assume, then, that you differentiate between hyphens and dashes by adding spaces either side of your hyphens. As an editor, I'd rather writers DID use two hyphens when they're indicating a dash, as it's far clearer what your intention is, and it leads to less confusion in the copyediting process.

And Derek, you're right about the peace-and-love summer, you old hippy, you.

Lydia Sharp said...

Happy Punctuation Day!

Between this blog and PMN, I'm in perfectionist heaven today. ;)

Nicola Slade said...

"But when I type two hyphens into Word it automatically converts them into an em-dash for me, so my mss never look like that."

Well! You should have said, all those times I've whined at you over the years! I tried it in Word and it works. I might do that, if I remember.

Anonymous said...

As a production professional, I must disagree with what you have said regarding ellipses and the spaces around them.

My preference, both as designer/typesetter and production editor, is to have space fore, aft, and in between the dots. The trick is getting this space to equalize and not have ellipses breaking at the ends of lines.

When an ellipsis falls in the middle of a sentence, the notion of having no space before and a space after is just...weird. (When typing, I use no spaces. That is not the same as typesetting book pages.)

As for a practical approach when an author is preparing a manuscript? Don't worry about it. Just be consistent in whatever you do. The production people are used to having to fix this particular problem. We assume no author, ever, will get it right.

Jane Smith said...

Lydia, I'm a little concerned now. Because when I read your comment my first thought was that we should just get a room.

And Nicola, see? You should just trust me. I know what I'm doing (so long as I'm sober, so that only allows a very small window...).

Jane Smith said...

Barbarienne, thank you so much for taking the time to comment here: it just shows how opinions vary on this particular subject (and yes, I'll admit to feeling thrilled about the possibility of a punctuation flame-war happening here...).

Every publisher I've worked for has wanted a space after an ellipses, but none in front of it.

I've edited for American and British publishers, so I don't think that's an English preference.

Do you work for any particular publisher? I'm not picking holes here, I just want to know which ones prefer this the way you say.

Incidentally, in Teresa Nielsen Hayden's book, "Making Book", she makes it clear that at Tor the house style is for NO spaces either side of the ellipsis, no matter what surrounds it. I find that remarkably inelegant, no matter how fan-girly I feel about the wonderful Mrs N H (and Tor, of course).

Jane Smith said...


I hate this new black keyboard, which stops me from seeing what I'm typing.

"an ellipses", indeed. Somebody shoot me, now.

Lydia Sharp said...

"an ellipses", indeed. Somebody shoot me, now.

Aah, my eyes! ;)

Regarding spaces before, after, or between the dots, I've always done so the way barbarienne described above. But I'm just a writer, not an editor. This debate intrigues me, though.

Derek said...

The way barbarienne describes it is the way it's specified in the Chicago Manual of Style.

Jane Smith said...

And yet the publishers I've worked for don't want spaces between the dots, and nor do they want one before the whole kaboodle... I love a good punctuation rant.

One thing I do agree with Barbarienne on, however, is this:

"The trick is getting this space to equalize and not have ellipses breaking at the ends of lines."

Eugh. Broken ellipses are horrible creatures indeed, and must be avoided no matter what.

Chris Eldin said...

LOL @ punctuation spider!

This is very helpful.

Maggie Dana said...

And to think Jane just invited me to wade into the murky waters of en- versus em-dashes. Right there, we have a whole argument waiting to happen, further complicated by British versus US usage ... (hah!!! elipses alert) which is even FURTHER complicated by the fact that I'm a Brit who designs and typesets books in the US.

There is no justice here. No right or wrong way. That said, the eye is judge of it all. What looks right for one may not look right to another, and dammit, Jane, I've already had a glass of wine ... do you expect me to give up another for the sake of an eliptically dashing argument?

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Eek. The ellipsis is one of my favourite lazy habits and I spend far too much of my life editing them out. Thank you Jane for the image of the spider vomiting over my work. I shall think several times in future before dotting at all!

Nicola Morgan said...

I am slightly deliciously ashamed to say that I loved this post. I now realise that because I am lucky enough to have publishers/editors who don't care what I do about these things because they sort them all out for me, I've missed out on a whole new feast of possible pernicketiness. Euwgh, I don't like those double hyphens either. I like dashes, whether em or en, as long as they're consistent, and am upset to see that I do the wrong thing with ellipses, whether I stay this side of the pond or not ... Oh dear, slap on wrist and big thanks to my long-suffering editors.

Unknown said...

Thanks, actually. I like this kind of information. Although I do have a handbook pertaining to this sort of thing on my shelf.

Unknown said...

You're right, consistency is crucial!

I just finished my novel (it's my dissertation for my MA creative writing) and spent the last day performing punctuations-searches. I had so many unnecessary colons and semi-colons!

I can't imagine what editing must have been like without a computer!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jane,

I worked for Avon Books, then HarperCollins, from 1994-2008. I currently head the production department at a university press.

Regarding the publishers who request no space in front, but a space after: are you talking about the manuscript? That may well be a useful format for them to work with at that stage. However, what happens in the typesetting stage may change the actual, technical, what's-on-the-page characters.

And of course as you say, there are different house styles. There may even be different styles within one (large) house, specialized for particular imprints.

The big debate I've seen with typesetters is whether the ellipsis sets as an ellipsis character (abominable!), sets as three periods with flexible space between them, or sets as three periods with fixed-width space between them.

Devious Medievalist said...

I really love you for this. Like Sally, I would love to see more. Perhaps on colons? More people seem to know how to use semi-colons; few seem to realize that the colon is for more than kicking off a list.

(Also, I think I am nominating you for Word Nerd Knight of the Month if you don't mind. In the link post is a shiny graphic here barred by tag restrictions and the rules, foremost of which is writing about the issues discussed on the blog.)

Daniel Blythe said...

Is anybody else hearing Victor Borge now?

Maggie Dana said...

Punctuation, Victor Borge's memorable take on this fascinating subject:

Derek said...

The big debate I've seen with typesetters is whether the ellipsis sets as an ellipsis character (abominable!), sets as three periods with flexible space between them, or sets as three periods with fixed-width space between them.

There is some information on this debate on:

Wikipedia on Ellipsis in English

Apparently Bringhurst is one of the ones pushing for narrower spaces between the dots. I tried his thin-space method and it looks awful.