Introduction

The English language is a wonderfully diverse medium in which to express yourself. It provides writers and editors with many punctual options to enhance their sentences. But with so many ways to construct your sentences and convey particular objectives, differentiating when to use the right punctuation can be a challenge. Subtleties of the tools of grammar, such as the use of an ellipsis, em dash, or a hyphen, can be quite difficult to grasp and even harder to get right consistently. Luckily, we did the groundwork for you, determining the purpose for each of these grammatical tools, and the proper way in which to employ them. Read on to find examples for each syntactic mechanism:

Ellipses

noun

noun: ellipsis; plural noun: ellipses

  1. the omission from speech or writing of a word or words that are superfluous or able to be understood from contextual clues.

“it is very rare for an ellipsis to occur without a linguistic antecedent”

a set of dots (…) indicating an ellipsis.

Ellipses demonstrate a lapse within a sentence. These three dots, which are represented as a single character in popular Word processors like Microsoft Word, serve as a pause in dialog or narration. However, these three dots are not a complete disconnect within a sentence. Instead, the sentence that specifically contains an ellipsis in the middle is connecting a point within a sequence, but takes a moment to pause between each thought or consideration. Here’s an example of proper ellipsis use:

“Well, what I meant to do wasI really don’t know.”

“I kept wandering into the woods. I just…kept wandering.”

“He really didn’t…well, I mean…maybe he did do it on purpose.”

Ellipses also operate to structure sentences that have the intent of continuation, or a thought the author wants you to linger on a bit. For instance, you may write dialog or have a character internally ponder why something is the way it is. They dawdle on this concern, and the reader should do the same. To properly achieve this, include an ellipsis at the end of the sentence to convey that your narration isn’t done considering this point…

“I know I’ve seen him somewhere before…”

“Why did she say that…?”

“I cannot believe we are doing this…!”

“Goodness…!”

A common formatting problem with the ellipsis is that in some fonts it crowds too close to the following word. The intention is to have the same space between the dots of the ellipsis as between the ellipsis and the next word.

An ellipsis is created in Word by typing three periods consecutively. Word will then auto-correct those three individual periods into a single ellipsis character, which looks very similar to three dots but maybe more or less spaced out depending on the font.

Em Dash (or em rule)

noun

noun: em dash; plural noun: em dashes

a long dash (—) used in punctuation.

Distinguishing between when to use an em-dash versus an ellipsis or hyphen can get tricky. For one, they appear to serve and achieve the same grammatical purpose – a break. See what I did there? If I were to use an ellipsis, you’d pause while hanging on the word ‘purpose’ because you’re internally taking a break before reading the rest of the sentence, reaching the part where you finally learn what that grammatical purpose is. The em-dash emphasizes a phrase or expression to create an interruption in the middle of a sentence that contains two closely related points that do not syntactically fit – the em-dash is indicative of this dispersed or interrupted speech. Em-dashes allow you to veer off in a different but relevant direction, then return to the initial sentence purpose. The em-dash allows you to temporarily break off, then get back on track.

“Until now – from what I know – she is coming with us.”

“I may have pondered – I may still be pondering – what it really means to be truly happy.”

“We both decided it was best to split up to find the missing key– and here’s the interesting part – in a way, it really wasn’t the best decision.”

Create an em-dash in Word by typing Ctrl+Alt+Minus (Option+Shift+Minus on a Mac).

Hyphens

noun
noun: hyphen; plural noun: hyphens

the sign -, used to join words to indicate that they have a combined meaning or that they are linked in the grammar of a sentence (as in a pick-me-up, rock-forming minerals ), to indicate the division of a word at the end of a line, or to indicate a missing element (as in short- and long-term ).

Hyphens are complicated. Merely because two words seem to operate fine without them, even though they grammatically need it. Other times, two words do truly operate fine without a hyphen, though the author tends to stick one in there anyway. For instance, the phrase ‘in progress’ is one of the most common phrases in which writers attempt to throw in a hyphen, making it ‘in-progress.’ This is not necessary, for one simple reason: hyphens cement two words together. Not all terms need to be glued together, like ‘in progress.’ The gluing of these two words indicates to the reader that they are linked. Sometimes, hyphens are also used to provide clarity.

When a writer combines a noun or adjective with a present participle (a word formed from a verb) to form a unit of significance that describes another word, use a hyphen to make the meaning of that unit clear. If you want to create a well-formed sentence that properly connects two terms that are very much linked and need to be hyphenated for proof of this connection, put a hyphen between them

First and foremost, there should never be a space before and after the use of a hyphen. Second, hyphens are physically shorter than em dashes.

Phrases that typically feature hyphenated compounds include:

State-of-the-art

Mother-in-law

Dog-friendly

Editor-in-chief

Dragon-themed

Factory-made

Fifty-five

Nineteen ninety-eight

10-minute

This list demonstrates three separate uses of hyphens. State-of-the-art and mother-in-law and Editor-in-chief demonstrate the “closely linked” words you describe.

Dog-friendly, factory-made, and 10-minute demonstrate the use of a descriptive phrase, where the second word is an adjective, and the first word is an adverb modifying the adjective. This format is almost always used before the noun.  After the noun, there is no hyphen. For example, “a factory-made tool,” but “the tool was factory made.”  If the hotel is dog friendly, it is a dog-friendly hotel.

The third use is in numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine. Also fractions, as in “one and one-half.”

See? Hyphens aren’t so intimidating. In fact, hyphens can emphasize your words and help the reader see the association between two functions. The hyphen can serve to connect two words, and also separate syllables of a single word or phrase. When used properly, hyphens accentuate your sentences and, shall we say it, look aesthetically appealing! It is important to note, however, that hyphens should not be confused with em dashes (which is a longer line than the hyphen).

Summary

We hope this breakdown of grammatical instances and examples has helped you to understand and determine when to incorporate ellipses, em dashes, and hyphens in your written word. For another pair of eyes on your grammar, check out our editing services: https://dragonrealmpress.com/editing/

5 Comments

  • Holly Whittaker Reply

    I believe that “well formed” should not be hyphenated unless it is a predefined whole term as in a legal document.

    “… for purposes of the Agreement, ‘well-formed’ is defined as of excellent or good quality pursuant to the definitions in the Blah Guidelines …”

    What would be the need to hyphenate it otherwise? The words are a noun and an intentionally unspecific modifier. To me, with use of the hyphen, it would indicate a whole unit with its own clearly understood meaning between writer and reader.

    • Chris (admin) Reply

      Hi Holly. Thanks for commenting. It’s a fantastic point you’ve highlighted 🙂 The Dragon Realm editors have conferred and we still think it’s okay to use the hyphen in the cited example. Here’s the feedback from one of the editors:

      Hi Holly! Thank you for your response. Hyphens are a complex beast, and depending upon the country you live and write in, the case for proper hyphenation varies. In the United States, compound words are hyphenated when preceding a noun or adjective. In this case, ‘well-formed’ precedes the term ‘sentence,’ which serves as a noun. In order to properly demonstrate the combined meaning of well formed, since it directly refers to a sentence that is well constructed, these two words must be hyphenated. Notice how well formed and well constructed were not hyphenated in the previous sentence? That’s because neither come before a noun or adjective, making a hyphen unnecessary. In the case of a ‘well-formed sentence,’ the hyphen establishes the connection between ‘well’ and ‘formed,’ since the two terms need each other in order to properly demonstrate that the sentence is indeed a well-formed grammatical construction. Kind regards, DRP.

  • Lee Reply

    Why do some people use a double hyphen? Is there such a thing in grammar and punctuation or are they just trying to create an em dash?

    • Christopher Morgan Reply

      That’s an excellent question, Lee. Thanks for posing it. All the Dragon Realm Press editors are in agreement on this one. There’s never any time that you should be using a double hyphen. Some people may do so in an attempt to create an em-dash. In some applications, like Scrivener for example, when you type a double hyphen, both hyphens are converted on the spot to an em-dash. It could be that getting into the habit of using a double-hyphen to create an em-dash in this way may lead people to believe that’s how it’s done elsewhere, when that might not necessarily be the case.

    • Magnus Reply

      No, and yes they are substituting “–” or “—” for “—” (or, even more incorrectly, “–” as for “–” instead of “—”).

      Why?

      1) These characters are not hard-coded, as with their own keys, on standard keyboards.
      1b) Even if they were, it’s been popular for a good while to not have a full 104+Numpad keyboard (or, more recently, no physical keyboard at all).
      2) These characters are often well-concealed within word-processing applications. And many institutions, such as K-12, have grossly neglected instruction on such subjects. Most do not have occasion to learn their proper utilization—of the word processing applications too—until or unless they’re in college, where such things become mandatory; or woe! I actually attended an online high school for grades 11 and 12, and even there they didn’t cover the proper use (as regards formatting) of Word/OpenOffice!
      2b) That’s assuming the program in question even has such a resource at all. A fair few do not.
      3) Not everybody is familiar with coding, which is how you’d otherwise generate these characters (ALT+Numpad).
      3b) Not everybody knows what the character’s name is, to search for it to copy+paste.

      I’m not in the least ashamed to admit that I was well out of school before figuring this out. A lot of luck involved in running into it. I’m also not ashamed to admit that I still keep a document—ode to cheat sheet—to copy+paste them, and other symbols, from (simpler than trying to remember the ALT+Numpad codes. Not to mention, much faster than, say for example, going over to Insert>Symbols>More Symbols>Special Characters in Word. Whew!).

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