Tips for Indie Authors: All You Never Wanted to Know about the Dash and a Giveaway




In the thirty plus years that I’ve been editing the drafts of other writers, I’ve found the dash in its many forms to be the most misunderstood mark of punctuation. First of all, there is more than one type of dash. Second, each type is used for a different purpose. Third, according to the Chicago Manual of Style, the guide used by most trade publishing houses, no spaces appear before or after a dash with only one exception. Curious? As my contribution to the Rave Reviews Book Club’s mentoring program, from time to time in my blogs, I provide guidance on grammar and formatting. So, here it is: the mighty dash in its many uses.

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Dashes Come in Several Sizes


The hyphen is the first dash to which we are introduced in grade school. It is commonly used to create compound adjectives and compound nouns as in:

These quasi-judicial proceedings will accomplish nothing (compound adjective).

His self-control was remarkable (compound noun).

Hyphens are also used in right-justified text to indicate word division at the end of a line of text, to join a prefix to a root word, and to indicate an etymological part of a word. Here are examples:

Word Division: At the end of a page of justified type,  a savvy proof-

reader looks for bad word breaks.

Prefixes: John was the kind of guy who thought it un-American to hate hotdogs.

The tendency today is to eliminate hyphens between prefixes and root words, unless the root word is a proper noun, such as American.

Etymological parts: Hyphens are eliminated when prefixing in-, de-, re-,  or un- to a word.

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En Dash

An en dash represents the word “to” within figures or words and is used to show range. For example:

The years 2002–2010                          the Baltimore–Washington run

Pages 568–632                                    the New York–Trenton train


Avoid these common pitfalls:

(1) if the word “from” appears, an en dash cannot be used. For example:

The bus runs from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Not: from 7:00 a.m.–11:00 p.m.

(2) An en dash cannot substitute for the word “and.” For example:

He built the company between 1976 and 1996, stepping aside finally for his daughter, who became the new CEO.  Not between 1976–1996.


Em Dash

An em dash is used to show a sudden break in thought within a sentence, an interruption in dialogue, or to highlight explanatory or digressive elements and defining or complementary elements, as in the following:

“Will he—did he promise to—return by sundown?” (break in thought)

“Well, I’m not sure. Do you think he might—” “Might what? The sergeant screamed. (interrupted dialogue)

The president—he had been annoyed by his previous visitor—strode angrily into the conference room. (explanatory element)

She admitted the influence of three writers—Renault, Bradley, and Erickson—on her writing when she accepted the prize. (defining/complementary element)

These are the basics for the em dash. There are exceptional uses and mechanical uses as well. As a writer, you need be concerned only with the uses outlined above.

Variations on the Em Dash

2-Em Dash

Use the 2-em dash to show the omission of part of a word, that is, to indicate missing letters, as in:

To protect their lives, the witnesses were referred to as Mr. L—— and Mr. M——.

Formatting tips: no space between the dash and the letter preceding it; normal spacing after the dash. In this example, there is no space between the dash and the L, but there is one space between the dash and the “a” of and. In addition, there is no space between the dash and M, and there is no space between the dash and the period, following the usual rule of no space between the last word in a sentence and a period.

3-Em Dash

Use a 3-em dash to show the omission of a whole word or to substitute for an author’s name in a bibliography, where works of the same author are cited, as in:

He left the safe house in ——— at 11:00 p.m. (omission of a whole word)


Mehl-Madrona, Lewis, M.D. Coyote Medicine. New York: Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1997.

———. Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process. Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Company, 2007. (substitution for Mehl-Madrona, Lewis, M.D.)

Now that you know more than you ever wanted to learn about dashes, would you like to show how resourceful you are? Then tell me how the en and em dashes came to be named. If you are the first person to tell me in a comment how the dashes were named, I will send you a $10 Amazon gift card.


Amazon Gift Card Giveaway

Amazon Gift Card Giveaway



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About jsherwin2013

Jennie has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in counseling. She is the author of Intentional Healing: One Woman’s Path to Higher Consciousness and Freedom from Environmental and Other Chronic Illnesses and is a contributing writer to Conscious Life News. She has been a teacher of English on the junior high school and senior high school levels, as well as a writer and editor in the field of public health. She has mentored writers and editors. She is certified in Reiki I and II and has studied energy therapies at A Healing Place in Richardson, Texas, working under the direction of Deborah Singleton and her healing team. Jennie also acknowledges the guidance of Christine Gregg, Australian spirit reader and healer, and Maya Page, intuitive healer, Reiki Master, and VortexHealing® practitioner, now retired. Jennie lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband, Roger, a retired physician and epidemiologist. They provide editorial services to university researchers in the fields of medicine and public health. Her son, Colin, lives and works in New York City with his wife, Colleen.

9 responses to “Tips for Indie Authors: All You Never Wanted to Know about the Dash and a Giveaway”

  1. Kele Baker says :

    En and em dashes were given those names because of the width of the typesetting blocks. ‘N’ and ‘n’ blocks are narrower; ‘M’ and ‘m’ blocks are wider. The en and em dashes follow the same pattern.

    That’s my guess. 🙂

  2. ericamelliott says :

    Very useful information about the various dashes. Thank you, Jennie

  3. mandy says :

    Thank you, Jennie! It wasn’t more than I wanted to know–I didn’t know about the 3-M dash 🙂

  4. Susi says :

    it was very helpful for me too. I have to say, though, that I had to look up how to make the en and em dash with my keyboard. I never paid too much attention. thanks for the clarification

  5. Kathryn Chastain Treat says :

    This is very helpful Jennie. Glad for the clarification.

  6. Kathryn Chastain Treat says :

    Reblogged this on Be My Guest and commented:
    Great information!

  7. Bette A. Stevens says :

    Hi, Jennie. Thanks so much for the post! 🙂

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