This will be my last post for a while on issues to do with book formatting, layout, and style, but it seemed remiss of me not to write about another source of confusion. Dashes!

  • can be used (alone or in pairs) to emphasise information. That could be to indicate sarcasm, act as an aside, create humour, give an additional piece of information, or a single dash can be used for drama – like this!
  • can replace "to", as in Open Monday–Thursday 10.00–12.15; they can also be used between words of equal importance, such as patient–doctor confidentiality.
  • can show that the end of a sentence that has been broken off by an interruption, or re-started following one.
There are two main widths:
  • en-rules (en dashes), the width of a letter "n" –
    [a shortcut to get one in Word is to press CTRL + the keypad "minus" key]
  • em-rules (em dashes), which are wider, like the width of a letter "m" —
     PS these are the keyboard shortcuts in Windows:
    [a shortcut to get one in Word is to press CTRL + Alt + the keypad "minus" key]
Em-rules tend to be used in the US; en-rules in the UK. I favour using one or the other, and it doesn't matter which, but I dislike styles that use both. Dashes shouldn't be overused in prose, but can be useful in capturing the nuances of speech. Sometimes a semicolon is better than a single dash.

If you think of ellipses as a gentle pause or trail off, a dash is a more active break in the flow, or represents text being cut off. So a dash is a more aggressive form of an ellipsis.

I'm based in the UK so use the UK standard form of a space on each side of the en-rule except when it comes up against other punctuation (e.g. quotation marks, question mark).
  • She ran – well, more of a drunken hobble – but the pram rolled faster.
  • “When will we –” he began, before being beheaded.
They can be used to show we are carrying on where we left off after an interruption, too.
  • “I would like to –”
  • “You never listen to me!” Bertie yelled.
  • “– propose that we split up.” She folded her arms and, with satisfaction, watched Bertie's mouth fall slack.
However, there is a tricky case which is rarely mentioned in articles about dashes in the UK. What if we have a partial, interrupted, word? Is that different from between-word interruptions? For this reason some people suggest that, even though the spaced en-dash is standard in British writing, they would use an em-dash with no space for interruptions of that kind. So possibilities could be:
  • “I will but Karl's bo –” (spaced en-rule)
  • “I will but Karl's bo–” (unspaced en-rule)
  • “I will but Karl's bo—” (unspaced em-rule)
I referred to Hart’s Rules, and Butcher’s Copy-Editing for Editors, Authors, Publishers. As expected, they offer conflicting advice. Hart's Rules agrees with the suggestion above; it doesn't give examples of en-rules for abrupt sentence breaks, but it does for the em-rule:
  • "An em-rule closed up can be used in written dialogue to indicate an interruption, much like an ellipsis indicates trailing off:
  • "Does the moon actually—?"
  • "They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist—"
However, Butcher's says:
  • "An en-rule with a space before it can be used to indicate that a speech breaks off abruptly"
    (it does not include that as a function of em-rules).
In the end I decided to use spaced en-rules, but miss out the space that comes before it if the interrupted word hasn't been finished.
  • “I will pay to –”
  • and
  • “It’s okay, the machine’s turned off, I won’t get electrocu–” Buzz etc.
To my mind that distinction makes it clear when a word is finished, so there’s no need for the reader to ponder if “to” was the start of another word (totally, tomorrow, too) or not.

"Intelligent" Line Breaks In Word

Lastly, a problem with dashes: if you use Microsoft Word then you may run into the issue that if you use a spaced en-rule (or even an unspaced em-rule) Word may still use it as a breaking point and puts the speech marks (or other punctuation) on the next line on their own, as here:

What a mess. It's because, although Word allows a non-breaking hyphen, it does not have a non-breaking en-rule or em-rule. Therefore you can't tell Word not to break the line at that point. If you encounter this problem then here are three possible solutions - let me know if any of them work for you. You could:
  • Select the line of text. In the Font box, click the Advanced tab. Set the Condensed spacing to be 0.1 pt (or 0.1"). It will act like kerning to shrink enough space out of the line to fix the problem while still being readable. To use that setting repeatedly, you could create a custom "Condensed" character style.
  • Try a hard space ("a space that thinks it is a letter"): Ctrl + Shift + Spacebar
  • Make a non-breaking hyphen by holding down CTRL/Shift/Dash. Highlight it. In the Font dialogue click the little arrow on the bottom right. Make sure you are on the Advanced tab. Click 200%. Italicize it.
That's all for now. Here are some other recent posts I wrote on similar topics: