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Grammar Mishaps: dash, hyphen, ellipsis--which to use?

Updated on September 21, 2012

Em dash, en dash, hyphen. . . what's the difference?

This is another commonly misunderstood grammar rule. What is most commonly referred to as a "dash" is more accurately called an "em dash" and is used in a very different way than the hyphen. You type an em dash on a standard keyboard by striking two hyphens in a row, with no spaces on either side--that's right, just like this. It is used to indicate a break in syntax: for a clarification on the previous portion of the sentence, or in the place of parenthesis. It should *not* be used simply to indicate a pause in the sentence (that job is reserved for commas and ellipses--see below).

The "en dash" is a confusing beastie indeed. Is it so confused with the hyphen (even by experts) that there is little point in distinguishing between the two. It is typed on a standard keyboard as a single hyphen. It is used in showing a numerical or chronological range. You can find the en dash showcased somewhere in paragraph 1-3 in this article. You may also see this displayed from 12 a.m.-5 p.m. at this website (or any other time you choose to read it).

The en dash can also replace the hyphen to add clarification, as in mid-day or post-war era. The hyphen is similarly used to attach compound words, and is falling out of use in recent times. Any further distinguishing between en dashes and hyphens is fruitless: they look and smell the same, why don't they share the same name?

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The ellipsis is also misused quite a lot . . . don't you think? Technically, you would use a standard keyboard to create an ellipsis by typing three periods with spaces between each of them . . . and before and after the ellipsis. This is a moot point unless you are using a typewriter and typing papyrus. Most document programs (like MS Word) will suck up your dots, nicely framed in spaces with care, and replace them with a single *special character* ellipsis (also called a *coded* ellipsis). With modern fonts and document programs, it's hard to tell who's following this silly *extra spaces* rule and who isn't.

You should use an ellipsis for showing a missing piece of text, or a pause in speech. When you put an ellipsis at the *end* of a sentence, skip a space and then add your period. If you have skipped one or more sentences from a quote *before* a new sentence, leave your period from the previous sentence, type a space, then make your ellipsis, and begin your new sentence (after the skipped sentences). If you only skip part of the beginning of a sentence, it is considered incorrect to begin the sentence with an ellipsis . . . but I won't tell if you don't. Most readers won't know this obscure rule . . . or the even lesser known rule that you *can* use an ellipsis to begin a sentence if the sentence is in a blockquoted fragment of text.

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Comments

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    • Chris Hibbard profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Hibbard 

      6 years ago

      @Robinadair: Nice catch!

      @Will: also, Nice catch!

      Both of you caught my very worst typo: the 1- or 2-letter typo. You wouldn't believe how many of these my editors found in my last book--it took weeks to dig them out!

    • profile image

      Yashel 

      6 years ago

      thanks for the tips very useful

    • profile image

      azam 

      6 years ago

      can u give me 10 hyphen sentences

    • htodd profile image

      htodd 

      6 years ago from United States

      Nice post..Thanks a lot

    • profile image

      Robinadair 

      6 years ago

      Chris, while this is definitely edifying, could you please check, paragraph 3, line 3. I believe the gerund "distinguishing" should take a singular verb--don't you think?

    • profile image

      Cindy Beden 

      6 years ago

      YOU, my dear sir, are funny and informative! A veritable modern-day miracle! Thank you, thank you, for the excellent utilization of the em dash (which, by the way, can be easily done on a mac by holding "option" then the hyphen. It's so pretty!), the useless en dash, and the ellipsis! Although, on my mac, again, holding the option button and the colon/semi-colon gives me an ellipsis, but without any spaces! hmmm...

    • baygirl33 profile image

      victoria 

      6 years ago from Hamilton On.

      Thanks Chris!

      You teachers of grammar have a real job on your hands!

      Everyone wants to know.Who Knew?

      Am book-marking your hubs.

      Is that correct?

    • profile image

      dipa 

      6 years ago

      pliz.... pliz.... pliz.....

      tell me about ellipsis in grammar.....

      i'm confuse....

    • profile image

      Friend 

      7 years ago

      2 reminders:

      - Midday is one word and is not hyphenated.

      - Often the words "Quote" and "Quotation" are incorrectly used as substitutes for each other. However, remember that "Quote" is a verb and "Quotation" is a noun. To quote means to repeat the exact words of another with the acknowledgement of the source. A quotation is a phrase or a sentence from a book or a speech that reflects the author's profound thoughts. So, in effect, one quotes a quotation.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      7 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Useful and helpful, but still a bit confusing to me. Love the hat! :)vocalcoach

    • profile image

      UK editor 

      7 years ago

      UK and US differ on these rules. The UK does not use an en rule for prefixes and suffixes; we use a hyphen. The em rule is equal to the hight of the font, not the width of an m. An en rule is half that length. En and em rules have distinct uses in UK English and it does matter which ones are used (unless it doesn't matter that the writer is mis/understood). Hyphens also have a clear and distinct use. To state that there is any confusion among literate people about which of the three to use is not true in UK English.

      The American APA and Chicago styles recommend a space either side of an ellipsis. We also use spaces in UK English.

      The comment from Oldbiker is a sign of the times: presentation before content. No doubt a designer working on a title with lots of pictures for those who find words too challenging.

    • profile image

      Mr. Fred 

      7 years ago

      There are a few comments here about what might look better or the difficulties of correct grammar usage with certain keyboards and other technology. I would like to point out that this webpage is about grammar and what is grammatically correct, despite any practical difficulties. The webpage is not designed to advise people on what to use in any particular situation, but simply to advise people on what is grammatically correct to use.

    • profile image

      oldbiker1 

      7 years ago

      rules? i don't follow rules -- I do whatever looks good. As a graphic designer, the appearance of the image of the words on the page is more important to me than "rules." Actually, I do follow some rules, but only if i agree with them. And, besides... most people don't know the rules anyway. Design rules...!

    • profile image

      angelena 

      7 years ago

      oh ! thanks for sharing and realy we are injoying in learning grammer thanks dear

    • profile image

      Bobby 

      7 years ago

      Thank you for this very useful post! Chiefsub68 has a point though, the practicalities of print has a great effect despite the 'true rules' of punctuation. With the advent of the computer, perhaps this is why punctuation in this area as evolved to be so.

    • profile image

      chiefsub68 

      7 years ago

      As a UK journalist and proofreading trainer, I would urge people to avoid the em dash. It looks ugly in print and overuse will have the same effect as too many upper case letters: the reader's eye can be drawn by the typography, leading to a loss of concentration.

      Most places where I work use the en dash (with spaces either side) as a dash. Hyphens are reserved for line-breaks and compounds.

      Incidentally, I wouldn't fuss about fossil-fuel-based with a hyphen and a dash – I'd use all hyphens.

      Finally, the late Keith Waterhouse wrote an excellent book on English, which has just been reprinted. See http://amzn.to/keithw

    • profile image

      andy wood 

      8 years ago

      I love grammar it is fun it help u to understand words better.

    • profile image

      itha 

      8 years ago

      uupss sorry..

      i mean that give me the simple example paragraph that use ellipsis..

    • profile image

      itha 

      8 years ago

      give me the example paragraph that use synonym!!!!

    • Chris Hibbard profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Hibbard 

      8 years ago

      Thanks Stephanie...corrected.

    • profile image

      Stephanie 

      8 years ago

      Just to note - it's an "em dash" because it is roughly the length of the letter M! (misspelling in the second 'graph)

    • Chris Hibbard profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Hibbard 

      8 years ago

      PaulBurt: Yes, you are correct about em dash and hyphen distinction, but I'm afraid you need to read my opening paragraph again for homework tonight. I'm not convinced people decide which computer they're going to buy on this particular punctuation mark. Most English computers (whether they are in the UK or USA) do not have a separate key for em dashes, but I so glad yours does. ;-)

    • Chris Hibbard profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Hibbard 

      8 years ago

      Ozge,

      I'm not sure we follow the same gramar rules (just looking at the umlaut in your name) but ellipses are pretty simple...just use them for a pause...and don't put a space before or after them. If your WP/ editor puts the three .'s extremely close together, that means it did not automatically replace the '.s with the ellipses special character, and you should put paces between them to closesly immitate the proper ellipses.

    • profile image

      Özge 

      8 years ago

      ?s there anybody who will tell me about ellipsis (with an example).. ? couldn't understand ellipsis

    • profile image

      @@@@@@@@@@ 

      8 years ago

      im soooooooooooooo bored give me an example thanks and i really mean it gogogo!!!!! UUUUUU UUUUUU UUUUU ROCK

    • profile image

      Paul Burt 

      8 years ago

      An em dash is a separate character to the hyphen and is certainly (in UK English anyway) not two hyphens next to each other. It is not simple to enter em, en dashes or numerous other special characters on Windows keyboards and this is one reason why graphic designers and those skilled in typography have traditionally used Macs.

    • profile image

      Sean 

      9 years ago

      aw man! Thanks! This has always confused me and you've made it simply clear! You rule!

    • profile image

      JR Swanink 

      9 years ago

      Thank you. Might I add your cowboy hat (if that is you) is nice.

    • Chris Hibbard profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Hibbard 

      9 years ago

      Pramod: no, it isn't gramatically correct, but it does get the point across . . . much to the chagrin of gramar nazis.

      Helloooo: only if the ellipsis ends the sentence, or it should require a capital letter anyway.

      Renata: 4 '.'s should be used when teh elipsis is at the end of a sentence . . . . See the last paragraph of my article for more details.

      Andy: it's both (they are two separate beasts). Read paragraphs 1–2 again for homework tonight. ;)

    • Chris Hibbard profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Hibbard 

      9 years ago

      wow, so many comments!

      Angie: you've stumbled onto the difference between the en-dash and the hyphen. You need 1 between the words fossil and fuel, and the other between fuel and based: "fossil-fuel–based economy". Now, did you notice one is slightly longer than the other? Neiher did anyone else, until we pointed it out together ;)

    • profile image

      Andy 

      9 years ago

      Is it "em-dash" or "en-dash"?

    • profile image

      Renata 

      9 years ago

      I got a question: when to use "4 points" of ellipsis?

    • profile image

      HELLOOOO 

      10 years ago

      do you use a capital letter after the ellipsis?

    • profile image

      Pramod  

      10 years ago

      Can one use multiple ellipsis to indicate a . . . . . . well, long pause?

      Thanks in advance.

    • profile image

      Angie 

      10 years ago

      Hi, Chris! What a dashing young man you are. I have a question: When saying "fossil fuel based economy" where would insert the hyphen? Thanks so much!

    • profile image

      Ella 

      10 years ago

      I love grammar! It makes me smile!

    • profile image

      Lori 

      10 years ago

      Hi! Thanks for making grammar-learning fun! What I can't find is a fast-rule about using capital letters after an ellipsis at the beginning of a sentence... Help!

    • Chris Hibbard profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Hibbard 

      11 years ago

      It looks like you have the elipsis down . . . how about the em dash--or shall I say dash for short? I'm a big fan of using the em dash in place of parentheses--which of course work just as well--because it give new meaning to the term parenthetical statement--maybe I should say "emdashical statement"? By the way, I wouldn't crowd the use of this many dashes of any sort in anything but an example.

      Now for the hyphen (to be forever confused with the en dash), there's not mush else to show. I've already included 2-3 examples in the main article!

      Thanks for reading,

      Chris

    • dice228 profile image

      dice228 

      11 years ago

      thanks for this tip . . . but I would like a few more 'usage 'examples . . . if you know what I mean. :)

    • profile image

      Tim 

      11 years ago

      I've been wondering about these differences for years because everyone seemed to have established their own rules for using them. Thanks for clearing it up.

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