Are your hyphens, en dashes and em dashes giving you the run-around? Here’s a guide to conventional usage in UK and US fiction publishing.
Dashes are sometimes referred to as ‘rules’, especially in the UK. Oxford’s New Hart’s Rules (NHR) refers to the ‘en rule’ and the ‘em rule’ whereas The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) discusses ‘en dashes’ and ‘em dashes’.
Both terms are acceptable but I’ll use ‘dash’ in this article.
A word on exceptions
Take a look at the likes of CMOS and you’ll see plenty of exceptions to the rules, which is why I don’t much like rules when it comes to fiction editing! What I’ve given you here is what I think you’ll need to know most of the time for most of your novel writing.
What do the dashes look like?
There are four dashes you’re most likely to use in fiction:
Dashes that set off text and replace alternative punctuation
The EN DASH and the EM DASH can be used to set off an augmenting or explanatory word or phrase in a sentence that could stand alone without the insertion.
Brackets, commas and colons can act as alternative forms of punctuation. Here are some examples that demonstrate how it could be done:
That old dog (the black one) is as sweet as they come.
That old dog, the black one, is as sweet as they come.
That old dog – the black one – is as sweet as they come.
That old dog—the black one—is as sweet as they come.
She knew the name of that old dog – everyone did.
She knew the name of that old dog—everyone did.
That sweet old dog had a name – Patch.
That sweet old dog had a name: Patch.
In the UK, it’s conventional to use a SPACED EN DASH. This is not the law, not a rule, not the only way or the right way. It’s just the style that many UK publishers choose, though not all.
Here’s an example from my version of Stephen King’s The Outsider (p. 171):
The yard – every single blade of grass seeming to cast a shadow in the moonlight – was empty.
In the US, it’s conventional to use a CLOSED-UP EM DASH. Again, this is not the law, not a rule, not the only way or the right way. It’s just the style that many US publishers choose, though not all.
Here’s what King’s sentence looks like when amended according to US convention:
The yard—every single blade of grass seeming to cast a shadow in the moonlight—was empty.
Some style guides even ask for SPACED EM DASHES, though I see this usage less frequently:
The yard — every single blade of grass seeming to cast a shadow in the moonlight — was empty.
I recommend you stick to spaced en dashes or closed-up em dashes in fiction because that’s what your readers will be most familiar with. As for which style you should choose, think about:
If you’re publishing internationally, pick one style and be consistent.
Dashes in number spans
In fiction, number spans are often written out, though again this is convention rather than a rule that must be adhered to. Number ranges might make their way into emails, texts, letters and reports in your story, and they’re perfect for date ranges.
A CLOSED-UP EN DASH between number spans is standard in publishing, whether you’re writing in British English or US English:
Morning registration: 9.30–11.30 (full stops more often used in time styles in UK English)
Morning registration: 9:30–11:30 (colons more often used in time styles in US English)
See pp. 86–95
The 1914–18 war was the war to end all wars
07/03/1967–26/06/2019 (day/month/year; standard in UK English)
03/07/1967–06/26/2019 (month/day/year; standard in US English)
Note that the en dash means up to and including (or through in US English).
CMOS and NHR both recommend using EITHER the closed-up en dash in a number range OR a from/to or between/and construction, but not a mixture of the two:
Read from p. 86 to p. 95 (standard)
Read pp. 86–95 (standard)
Read from p. 86–95 (non-standard)
The war lasted from 1914 to 1918 (standard)
The war lasted from 1914–18 (non-standard)
I’ll be there between 9:30 and 11:30 (standard)
I’ll be there between 9:30–11:30 (non-standard)
Dashes as alternative speech marks
The CLOSED-UP EM DASH can act as an alternative to speech marks (or quotation marks) in dialogue in both UK English and US English.
Sylvain Neuvel uses this technique in Sleeping Giants and it works because the scenes in which it occurs take place in a secret location with an anonymous (even to the reader) agent running the interrogation. Each speaker’s turn is indicated with an em dash. The agent’s speech is rendered in bold.
Excerpt from the Kindle edition:
—There is no need to get angry.
—I’m not angry.
—If you say so. You have a problem with authority.
—You don’t need a test to work that one out.
It can be an effective tool for fiction that’s dialogue driven – almost like a screenplay – but it gets messy when there are more than two speakers in a conversation, and becomes unworkable if you want to ground your dialogue in the environment with narrative (action beats, for example). And, of course, the dialogue needs to be standout because that’s all there is.
Dashes that indicate end-of-line interruptions
To indicate that a speaking character has been interrupted, use a CLOSED-UP EM DASH, whether you’re publishing in US or UK English.
Here’s an example from Mick Herron’s Dead Lions (p. 115)::
‘I got the guys at the Troc to pick it up on Clerkenwell Road. They tracked—’
‘You got the guys—’
‘Yeah yeah. Catherine got the guys at the Troc to pick them up.’
And another from Linwood Barclay’s Parting Shot (p. 380):
“Ms. Plimpton,” Duckworth said. “I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Detective Barry—”
“I know exactly who you are,” she said, and reached out and took his hand in hers.
Dashes for dialogue interrupted by narrative description
Dashes offer clarity when dialogue is broken by narrative description and the speaker hasn’t finished talking.
Here’s how it could be rendered in US English using CLOSED-UP EM DASHES:
“We’ve talked about this monstrosity before”—he jabbed at the flock wallpaper—“and I’m telling you, it has to go.”
And if you’re following UK English convention, use SPACED EN DASHES:
‘We’ve talked about this monstrosity before’ – he jabbed at the flock wallpaper – ‘and I’m telling you, it has to go.’
Notice how I’ve also used double quotation marks in the US version and singles for the UK one. Again, this isn’t about being right or obeying a rule; it’s a convention, and one that’s not always adhered to. Consistency is king.
Dashes that indicate faltering speech
If your character is out of breath, taken aback, caught off guard, frightened, or nervous, you might want to indicate faltering speech with punctuation.
There are no absolute rules about how you do this; it depends on the effect you want to achieve.
If you want to denote a staccato rhythm, HYPHENS are a good choice. This works for sharper faltering where the character stammers or stutters.
If the faltering related not to letters but to phrases, you could use a CLOSED-UP EM DASH (US style) or a SPACED EN DASH (UK style).
Ellipses are another option. They're not dashes but they're handy for faltered speech that has a pause in it. You can use these with your dash of choice.
"No. I-I-I mean, not really. It was an accident. I just s-s-saw him standing there and I flipped," Marion said.
Closed-up em dash for faltering phrasing (US style):
"I can't—I mean I shouldn't—well, it's difficult to know what to do."
Spaced en dash for faltering phrasing (UK style):
'I can't – I mean I shouldn't – well, it's difficult to know what to do.'
Ellipses for pauses (in conjunction with dashes):
'I can't – I mean I shouldn't – oh God ... you know what? It's d-d-difficult to know what to do.'
"No. I ... I mean, not really. It was an accident. I just s-s-saw him standing there and I flipped," Marion said.
Dashes as separators
HYPHENS are the tool of choice here. They’re short and sharp, and are perfect in fiction when you want to spell out words or numbers:
‘No,’ Louise said. ‘That’s not how you spell it. It’s T-O-M-A-S.’
“That doesn’t make sense. The extension he gave me is 1-9-1-8. Are you sure it’s a five-digit number?”
Number separation comes in handy when you want to ensure your reader reads the numbers as distinct digits rather than inclusively. Compare 1918 (nineteen eighteen) with 1-9-1-8 (one, nine, one, eight).
Dashes that indicate connection, relation or an alternative
We use EN DASHES in place of to and and/or to show a connection between two words that can stand alone and that together are modifying a noun:
They’d nurtured that author–editor relationship for years.
“Those two have had an on–off relationship for over a decade. I wish they’d make their minds up!”
‘I’m going to get the Liverpool–Belfast ferry. There’s one at ten thirty.’
Danny would take the money and Sheryl would get her promotion. It was a win–win.
I couldn’t see us winning the England–Brazil match but I put a tenner on us anyway. Just for fun.
Amir was an Asian–British scholar and something of a polyglot. ‘Languages float on the wind in my grandparents’ village,’ he once told me.
Dashes with adjectival compounds
Either EN DASHES or HYPHENS are used here, regardless of where you live.
When one adjective modifies another adjective, these words create a compound. If this compound is placed before a noun, it usually takes a HYPHEN for the purpose of clarity. When the compound comes after the noun and a linking verb, the hyphen can be omitted:
He buttoned up a navy-blue shirt.
His shirt was navy blue.
“That well-read woman you were talking about? She’s called Sally.”
“Sally sure is well read, no doubt about it.”
Care should be taken, even in fiction, with regard to weighting. Let’s revisit the example of our polyglot Amir. Consider the differences between the following:
Amir was an Asian–British scholar and something of a polyglot. ‘Languages float on the wind in my grandparents’ village,’ he once told me.
Amir was an Asian-British scholar and something of a polyglot. ‘Languages float on the wind in my grandparents’ village,’ he once told me.
Amir was an Asian British scholar and something of a polyglot. ‘Languages float on the wind in my grandparents’ village,’ he once told me.
Amir was a British Asian scholar and something of a polyglot. ‘Languages float on the wind in my grandparents’ village,’ he once told me.
In the first example, with an EN DASH, Amir’s Asianness and Britishness have equal weighting. In the second, with the HYPHEN, ‘Asian’ is modifying ‘British’ and carries less weight. In the third and fourth, where the dashes are omitted, the weighting is ambiguous.
The dash of choice (or its omission) can tell us something about Amir’s identity – how he, or the narrator, or the author perceives this – so it needs to be used purposefully.
Dashes indicating omission
You might want to omit words, fully or partially, because they’re profane, or to indicate that some of the letters are illegible, or to disguise a name.
There are several options for managing omission: em dashes, 2em dashes, en dashes and asterisks. Spacing comes into play. There are different conventions for US and UK style.
NHR recommends the following for UK style:
To indicate partial omission of a word, and the number of letters that have been omitted, choose the SPACED EN DASH (or unspaced asterisks):
‘The scandal featured a certain Mrs H – – – – –. Can you believe it?’
‘I told you to p – – – off!’ he said, spittle flying.
‘I told you to p*** off!’ he said, spittle flying.
To indicate partial omission of a word with a single mark, choose the CLOSED-UP EM DASH:
‘The scandal featured a certain Mrs H—. Can you believe it?’
‘I told you to p— off!’ he said, spittle flying.
To indicate complete omission of a word with a single mark, choose the SPACED EM DASH:
‘The scandal featured a certain Mrs —. Can you believe it?’
‘I told you to — off!’ he said, spittle flying.
CMOS recommends the following for US style:
To indicate partial omission of a word, choose a CLOSED-UP 2EM DASH:
“The scandal featured a certain Mrs H⸺. Can you believe it?”
“I told you to p⸺ off!” he said, spittle flying.
To indicate complete omission of a word, choose the SPACED 2EM DASH:
“The scandal featured a certain Mrs ⸺. Can you believe it?”
“I told you to ⸺ off!” he said, spittle flying.
Using dashes purposefully, and according to publishing convention, will bring clarity to your fiction writing. Think about your audience and what they’re used to seeing on the page, then choose your style and apply it consistently.
Consider, too, whether your choice of dash will amplify or reduce the significance (or weight) of your words when you’re using dashes as connectors or modifiers.
And if you’re still bamboozled, ask a pro editor. We know our dashes!
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with independent authors of commercial fiction, particularly crime, thriller and mystery writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
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