Hyphens, Ellipses and Dashes…Oh my! Part 3 — “eM” dashes

Hyphens, Ellipses and Dashes…Oh my! Part 3 — “eM” dashes

by M. Richard Eley

In this part of the series, we’ll take a look at the often misused and misunderstood “eM” dash, also known as the long dash. As with the eN dash, the eM dash is named because the length of the dash is…hah, hah, surprise, not the width of an “M” but the height of a character in the current font size. If you are using 12 point type, an eM is equal to 12 points. Although, like many other terms, the definition is an oft-argued point, and some claim the eM dash is the width of an “M” character. The truth is: it doesn’t really matter what your definition is. All that matters is how to properly use our friend the eM dash.

In the past (typewriter days) an eM dash was emulated by a double-hyphen as “–“. This is still required by many manuscript submission guidelines as an eM dash placeholder, as special characters are not allowed in many standardized manuscript formats. In many fonts, it’s easy to confuse a hyphen for an eN dash or eM dash, so we still use the double-hyphen to represent eM dashes. And that way, editors and typesetters know our intentions.

In usage, the eM dash can replace commas, parentheses, and colons:

  1. Generally used without spaces—like so—except in AP style.
  2.  On the other hand — in AP style — it is used with spaces around it.
  3. It can also come at the end of a phrase to set off the next section for emphasis—if necessary.
  4. Used for quote attributions:  “Never mistake motion for action.”—Ernest Hemingway.
  5. A single eM dash may replace both a comma and a coordinating conjunction:

                        “I’m sorry—I think we are out of today’s soup.”  (Replaces “, but”)

Many writers confuse an eM dash with an ellipsis (three dots.) A single eM dash occurs at the end of a curtailed section of dialog that is interrupted, or at the beginning of the section when it is continued. When used in a phrase’s interior for dialog momentarily interrupted by action or thought, it requires a closing eM dash. If used to show interruption, the eM dash is always followed by action, or interjecting dialog from a secondary character.

Take a look at the following example scene excerpt:

                        “I don’t love you anymore”—in truth, she never had—”and I’m leaving.”

                        John set down his glass. “I think we should—”

                        “You think too much,” Sherrie said.

                        “—talk about it.”

                        “I’m done talking,” she said.

                        “If you’d let me finish,” John said, ” you might just—”

                        A tremendous explosion sent the front door rocketing inward.

Breaking it down, here’s the usage of the eM dashes:

                        “I don’t love you anymore”—in truth, she never had—”and I’m leaving.”  (Interior breaks to interject some 3rd-person narration.)

                        John set down his glass. “I think we should—” (John is interrupted.)

                        “You think too much,” Sherrie said.   (Her follow-up dialog. See note below.)

                        “—talk about it. ” (John’s resumed dialog. Additional tags (“he said”) are optional.)

                        “I’m done talking,” she said. (Incidental dialog.)

                        “If you’d let me finish,” John said, ” you might just—”  (John is interrupted again.)

                        A tremendous explosion sent the front door rocketing inward.  (Follow-up action.)

Note: When using the eM dash properly, as in the example, there is no need to tag the follow-up dialog/action with “she interrupted,”  “the explosion cut him off,” or “she interjected.” The reader should be able intuit this from the structure and the use of the eM dash.

Other applications include double-eM-dashes, which indicate missing portions of words. (In some fonts, multiple eM dashes sometimes appear as a continuous line.)

            “Mrs. L—— would not reveal her source.”

            “The treasure map’s words were faded and worn: Walk t—— to the h—— and ——g. “

And if an entire word is missing, either two or three eM dashes can be used, but remain consistent throughout the document with the count:

            “The undercover witness, Mr. ———, was shot last week.”

If you are using MS Word, a quick shortcut for the eM dash is to hold down both ALT and CTRL keys, and then press the Minus key on the numeric keypad. On Macs, try OPT-SHIFT-HYPHEN. Using HTML codes, you can usually hold down a PC’s ALT key and type 8212 or 0151 to produce an eM dash—give it a try.

Next time we’ll explore the Ellipsis…see you then!


Hyphens, Ellipses and Dashes…Oh my! Part 2 – “eN” dashes

Hyphens, Ellipses and Dashes…Oh my! Part 2 – “eN” dashes

By M. Richard Eley

 In my previous article, we explored the wacky life of hyphens. As we found out, a hyphen’s main use is to break or join multiple-word compound terms.

This time, we’ll look at the eN dash. The eN dash, like its brother the eM dash, is named for the letter length of the dash in the same font. An eN dash is supposed to be as long as an upper case N, but this can vary due to font design, character proportional spacing, and Web browsers. In any case, an eN dash will fall somewhere between a hyphen and the longer eM dash (explored in Part 3 of this series.)

An eN dash is a little-used symbol, mainly due to its specific purpose, which is to break up a range of numbers, contest results, or scores. Many folks aren’t even aware of the eN dash, and often use hyphens instead—so you will see variances as to where and how it is used. Even major publishers and publications will show variances in its use.

The eN dash should be used for number ranges, contest results, or scores. It looks like this: pages 14–20, 2010–2012, the Senate voted 68–32, Bears over Raiders 47–28.

Note: If a range is introduced with words like “from,” “between,” or “during” do not use any form of dash: “The years between 1967 and 1970 were exciting.”

It’s a one or the other rule—when dealing with numbers, either use an eN dash OR a range preposition. “The crates between 13–16 are the most valuable,” is incorrect because it uses both an eN dash and “between.”

Sometimes, even though the usage is correct, the sentence’s meaning becomes confusing. Take, for example: “Crates 13–16 are the most valuable.”

Does that mean we are talking about four crates: 13, 14, 15 and 16?

Does it mean only two crates, 14 and 15, which are the two crates between 13 and 16?

Or is 13–16 a lot number—with a dozen crates on a pallet #13–16?

I’ve seen this type of ambiguity show up more often than you’d imagine—even in science books, college textbooks, and technical manuals. If a tech manual says, “To disable unit, cut the wires to the terminals between 44 and 48,” does that include terminals 44 and 48? Do you think a bomb disposal technician might be wondering the same thing? Express the correct meaning in clear and certain phrasing.

Often when discussing a range of physical “things,” the sentence will read smoother and clearer if you forego eN dashes in favor of a preposition: “The book volumes #13 through #16 have the most useful data,” or “The contestants numbered between one and two hundred.”

Using a prepositional word looks better than “There were 180–220 people out there.” It’s easy to misconstrue “180–220” as an adjective modifier of “people” instead of a numeric range.

However, when identifying a pair of numbers, not a range, the eN dash is usually clearer and less verbose. “Last night the Bears beat the Raiders: 47–28” or “The vote for adjournment failed, 55–11.” In those examples, the reader is likely to understand from the context that we are discussing a comparison between two specific numbers, and not a range. An eN dash is the best choice for this use, unless your particular style is to craft the phrase in a more literal manner: “The vote failed: 55 were in favor, and 11 against.”

The important thing is to construct the sentence such that the meaning is unmistakable, no matter who reads it, or if it is used out of context or quoted.

If you follow a particular stylebook—and this is highly suggested—it might have a rule about eN dash verses hyphen use. It appears acceptable in most cases to use either an eN dash or a hyphen for compound adjectives before nouns: note the difference in “hyphen-separated” and “eNdash–separated.”

But hyphens placed words slightly closer together than eN dashes do, and hyphens are considered the standard for compounding words.

In Microsoft Word: hold down the CTRL key then press the Minus key on the numeric keypad to create an eN dash. You must use the numeric keypad’s Minus key, not the Hyphen key near the Backspace key on the top row.

Using HTML/ALT codes, you can also hold down a PC’s ALT key and type 8211 or 0150 on the keypad. (8211 is the HTML code, 0150 is the original ASCII code.)

*Note: all codes must be typed on a regular numeric keypad, so they probably won’t work using a laptop’s embedded keypad.*

On Macs, try OPT-HYPHEN to create an eN dash.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at eM dashes. Until then, write on!

Stuff and Things: 1 Tiny Tip to Improve Vague Writing

Stuff and Things: 1 Tiny Tip to Improve Vague Writing

I get a lot of writing advice. A lot. Whether it’s from strangers who want to tell me it’s super important to use the correct form of “there” or online listicles with cat gifs about how to improve and tighten your writing, sometimes life seems like a constant stream of writing tips.

When you’re getting tips from people who don’t know what they’re talking about, people who are overzealous about certain styles, people who let their personal biases sound like hard rules, it can be difficult to discern exactly what you should be listening to and what you should ignore. I try to give every tip a chance, but there are simply so many it’s impossible to keep all of them at the forefront of your thinking when sitting down to write.

One tip I read somewhere and didn’t give much credence to was the advice to keep a careful eye on when and how you use the word “thing” in your writing. While the word is fine in speech and it is contained in some phrases, using it in descriptions and some forms of poetry makes the writing vague. A thing could be anything. Choosing a more exact word strengths the writing and better illustrates what you were trying to describe or discuss.

At first I thought I wouldn’t really need this tip that much because I didn’t think I used the word “thing” extensively in my writing anyway. But once I was looking for it, I noticed the word popping up all over the place. Once I told myself I had to work on being more precise, I found not only my writing improved, but it made me think more critically about what I was writing.

Here’s an example from a poem I was working on:

Original sentence: why did I insist on packing these things or in order to go on a vacation from them?

Here the word “things” is vague. What things am I talking about?

Rewrite: why did I insist on packing these sorrows in order to go on a vacation from them?

Now it’s clear what the line means. The “things” the in previous sentence could be better described as “sorrows”. The word “things” in the sentence was so vague that I could have been describing literally anything. But I wasn’t writing about every concept or object in the world, I was writing about a specific emotion.

Naturally, the word “thing” doesn’t have to leave your vocabulary completely. It is already attached to other words, such as “anything”, which I just used. Also, “something”, “nothing”, and “everything”. But it’s important to be attentive to how you’re using these words and see if you can substitute more exact language for them. When I used “anything” that is the right word for that sentence. I was using it to illustrate how broad the word is. Ambiguity was the point.

In a sea of millions of tips, it can be difficult to find what works for you and what you can use to strengthen your writing. This is just one tip I found helpful among the deluge of advice I am constantly exposed to.

What writing tips have you incorporated into your writing lately?

Hyphens, Ellipses, and Dashes… Oh my! – Part 1: Hyphens

Hyphens, Ellipses, and Dashes… Oh my! – Part 1: Hyphens

By M. Richard Eley

Part 1 — Hyphens

Back in the halcyon days of yore–and typewriters–there was only one choice for a “dash”: the hyphen key.

We all know what happened next: computers ruined our lives with their digital pomposity, smug 102-key keyboards, and self-righteous spell checking.

In the electronic age, we have five different choices for “dash” symbols, and all of them look similar. Each is unique, though, and has a specific use. In this and future articles we’ll explore a few punctuation symbols and their proper place in writing.

A hyphen’s main use is to break or join multiple-word compound terms. The ancient Greek root for hyphen roughly means “into one” or “under one.” It blends two concepts into one idea. Use hyphens with no spaces on either side for creating fragments such as: eye-opener, free-for-all, twenty-five.

Nowadays, some words aren’t hyphenated which were in the past, such as “now-a-days,” for example.

Only use multiple hyphens when meanings would be unclear without them: “a twenty-five-year-old man” is fine with its three hyphens, as compared to “a twenty-five-year old man” which turns a young man into a senior citizen. “Dyed-in-the-wool democrat” tells us what kind of democrat the person is. “Dyed in the wool democrat” may possibly mean we colored something that was stuck inside a woolen democrat. If a phrase acts as a single modifier/concept for a noun, then it’s a likely candidate for multiple hyphens.

Avoid using hyphens to compound “-ly” words, unless they are construed as a single concept and contained within a longer sequence of words. This doesn’t happen often in modern writing except to make a point: “The movie’s rarely-well-directed scenes were disappointing.”

Technically not a dash, the hyphen is much shorter than the other “true” dashes–though many texts make no distinction between hyphens and dashes. It’s something of a gray area, like many other “rules” of grammar and spelling.

To produce a hyphen on most keyboards and operating systems, press either the Hyphen key on the top row (usually located by the Zero key,) or press the Hyphen key on the numeric keypad. Sometimes that’s called the Minus or Subtraction key, but any of those keys produce the same hyphen.

The true minus sign, surprisingly enough, is not produced by the numeric keypad’s key. On a PC running Windows, you can usually hold down the ALT key and type 65293 on the numeric keypad to produce a Unicode minus sign. (Alt-65291 is a Unicode plus sign.)

On a Mac, it’s tricky to get to this symbol and the method depends on your version of OS, but if you can invoke the special characters menu, you’ll see a number of symbols that are available. (Command-Option-T or Command-Option-Space, or from the edit tab, look for “special characters.”)

A minus looks like this: 7 + 2 - 8 = 1. You know it’s a true minus sign, not a hyphen, because it has a little spacing built in, and it’s the same width as the plus sign. Note the visual difference if the smaller hyphen is improperly used for a minus sign: 9-8=1. If a minus sign is misused for compounded words, they’ll look a bit strange: “the blood-red tulips,” verses “the blood-red tulips.”

Note: in the above examples, differences between characters may be hard to discern due to different web browsers, system settings and fonts.

So there you go, all you ever wanted to know about hyphens. Maybe more than you wanted to know, but knowledge is power. In my next article, we’ll look into the mysterious “eN dash.”

No Fee Contest/Cash Prize: Is this for real?

No Fee Contest/Cash Prize: Is this for real?

Two phrases together often catch a writer’s attention.  No Fee and Cash Prize!  That’s exactly what you’ll find at HRW’s 8th Annual Writers Conference. Attendees have the opportunity to submit in three categories: poetry; fiction; and nonfiction. Each category pays cash prizes. And did I mention there is no fee to submit?

Here’s what you’ll receive in each of the three categories when you win:

First Place — $500

Second Place  — $250

Third Place — $100

Honorable Mention — $75 tuition break at HRW’s 2017 Writers Conference

While HRW has created an affordable, information-rich conference that appeals to all levels of writing experience, the no fee, cash prize writing contests reflect HRW’s desire to encourage emerging writers. Attendees are encouraged to submit to all three categories, but in an effort to encourage emerging writers, first place winners of any of HRW’s previous contests are ineligible to enter work into the contest category for which they previously were awarded first prize.

When it comes to submitting here are a couple of suggestions to make the most of your submission:

1) Look at the submission guidelines. Not only do they tell you the format and word count but also the submission deadline. Every competition has guidelines and without exception you must submit accordingly or your submission will be immediately disqualified from the running.

2) Once you have selected your categories, research the particular judges for each section. They have been selected because of their skilled ability to evaluate their category submissions. It is worth your time to see what they write, where their work has been published, and what subjects they’re passionate about.  I’m not sharing this to sway your topic.  However, you will benefit and possibly increase your chances of winning contests anytime you can adapt, remove barriers, and make it as easy as possible for the judges to evaluate your work.

Even if you don’t win any of the cash prizes or the conference credit for an Honorable Mention, each judge is requested to share their observations about your piece. You’ll get valuable feedback from a professional about where and how you can strengthen the writing, something that under normal conditions would require payment.

For more tips on writing competitions visit  http://www.dailywritingtips.com/20-tips-for-winning-writing-contests/.


Sherrie Pilkington, a co-founder of Hampton Roads Writers, serves on its advisory board. She’s a daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, and writer of nonfiction.

An Economy of Words, a Bounty of Emotion

kid picture
Naomi Nye’s poem “The Mother Writes to the Murderer: A Letter” begins with a quote from the Dallas Morning News: “Alicia didn’t like sadness.” The poem is about the murder of a child on her way to the store a block away from her house. The poem is powerful and haunting, vivid in its description of this child. Her death becomes painful to us, the reader, because we know her, and we can never forget her again.

And yet, Nye’s poem uses very ordinary words, nothing more difficult than a fourth-grader could understand. The word choice may not be lavish, but the emotions evoked through the simple language are raw and convincing.

In her letter to her daughter’s murderer, the narrator writes,

“You don’t have her drawings taped to your refrigerator
blue circuses, red farms
You don’t know she cried once in a field of cows
saying they were too beautiful to eat.”

Another line, which gets to me every time I read it, is,

“You don’t know where she hid her buttons.”

Whenever I struggle to come up with words that drip with emotion, I remember this poem and realize that lush language can sometimes get in the way of having my readers see what I want them to see and feel what I want them to feel. Sometimes, the simpler, the better.


Susan Okaty moved to Virginia Beach from San Antonio, Texas, where she was an academic dean for the North East Independent School District. She is co-secretary for HRW’s board of directors.

Read her blog.

A Brief Introduction to Short-Form Poetry

A Brief Introduction to Short-Form Poetry

National Poetry Month is in full swing and lots of poets are writing their hearts out in order to get to 30 poems in 30 days. Today, let’s take a look at some short-form poems that can help  you express your thoughts without taking up your entire day.

Why Should I write Short-Form Poetry?

Short-form poetry is a great way for writers who aren’t familiar with poetry to get started. If you primarily write prose, this can give you a chance to try out some poetry without committing to an epic-length poem.

Additionally, poets who usually write long can use this as an exercise to condense their writing, get to the core of the matter quickly, and trim out any excess. When you’re bound by syllables and word count, you have to make your message as short and to-the-point as possible.

Beginning poets also can find short-form poetry helpful as short-form poems are less time consuming and can help them work within a structure. There’s something for everyone in short-form poetry.

Short-Form Poetry Styles You Might Know


A Japanese poem which records the essence of a moment, offering insight into nature and the nature of humanity. Modern English should be brief – with one to three lines totaling 17 syllables or fewer. A haiku of three lines is most common, with usually a short, long, short format. Although the format is not as important. The 5-7-5 syllable count is not required.


A Nonet is a nine line poem, with the first line containing nine syllables, the next eight, so on until the last line has one syllable. Nonets can be written about any subject, and rhyming is optional.


A sonnet is a 14 line poem. There are many different styles and forms for sonnets, including Shakespearean and Petrarchan.

Short-Form Poetry Styles To Try Out


This the poetic form of Afghan women. The poem is 22 syllables long and contains 2 lines. 9 syllables in the first and 11 in the second. Subjects can include, but are not limited to, war, separation, homeland, grief, or love.


This poem style contains seven lines and is mysterious and strange. Lines one to three should contain three connected or contrasting statements, or a list of three details, names or possibilities. Lines four to six should similarly have three elements (statements, details, names, or possibilities) connected directly or indirectly or not at all. The seventh line should act as a narrative summary or punchline or an unusual juxtaposition.


A Rondeau is a short poem consisting of fifteen lines that have two rhymes throughout. The first few words or phrase from the first line are repeated twice in the poem as a refrain.

Other Popular Short-Form Poems

Good luck and post your short-form poems in the comments!