Monday, October 3, 2011

Formatting For ebooks and Print - Part 2: Em and En Dash

Last week I discussed the proper use of the ellipsis here. Today I’d like to tackle the correct use of the em and en dash. (By “correct use” I mean correct as I see it currently used in the fiction I’ve been reading lately and how I currently use it.)

The em dash looks like this:  

It’s created on a Windows machine by holding down the Alt key while typing 0 1 5 1 on the numeric keypad.

The en dash looks like this:  

It’s created on a Windows machine by holding down the Alt key while typing 0 1 5 0 on the numeric keypad. You’ll notice it’s shorter than the em dash, as the lowercase letter “n” is more narrow than the lowercase letter “m.”

The en dash is typically used when writing out ranges, like this:
The odds for my horse winning the race are ten–to–one. 
I don’t see the en dash used very often in fiction.

The em dash is typically used to point out a break of thought, like this:
A third ghost looked like the man on the Quaker Oats box. He appeared four weeks ago and was now making daily appearances, but so far had been mute. He would speak one day—they all eventually talked—and then there would be no shutting him up.
There is typically no space before or after the em dash, either in print books or ebooks. I have found exceptions, though, a few ebooks. A space was placed before and after the em dash. This made short justified lines look better on the ereader screen but had little effect on long lines and no effect on ragged-right lines.

What do I mean by long and short justified lines? Because ereaders don’t hyphenate lines, when justifying lines with large words, especially on a small ereader screen, large spaces are inserted between words. This is necessary to ensure that the end of the last word on the line is flush on the right. If there’s an em dash on the line, it will appear jammed together with the words before and after it. If you place a space before and after the em dash, the ereader will add space between the words and the em dash and the line will appear more pleasant to the eye.

Your choice. I like the appearance of the extra space far better on small readers like the iPhone. It makes little difference on my iPad, though. What devices do you think your readers will use most to read your books?

An em dash is also used when a speaker has been interrupted, like this:
She checked her watch: no time for a latte, and ran into someone. Knocked hard, she grabbed a parking meter and prevented a nasty fall, said, “I’m sorry, I guess I wasn’t looking at where I—”
The wall to her left puffed; shards of brick bit into her arm. Her face exploded.
This woman was interrupted by a bullet. Normally the interruption comes when another character butts in.

When used to point out a break in thought, the em dash can be overused, so apply it judiciously.

By comparison, the regular hyphen looks like this:  -

Here they are, from small to large: hyphen, en dash, em dash:  -   –   —


  1. Very interesting post, Ev! I think I kind of knew that but it is useful to remind yourself now and again, eh?

  2. More important for self-published writers who have to do their own typesetting and formatting.

  3. Everett -

    I am in the process of creating an ebook version of my novel A Greater Monster, and I'm having a heckuva a time getting the M-dashes to format correctly. I'm even having it done by an ebook specialist. Depending on the length of the line and the size of the font set, the Mdashes are sometimes breaking onto new lines even when they end a sentence or are between two words.

    For example (I'm makging this up), instead of a sentence running like this:

    I'm running for the door to get away from the
    fire--what was that sound?

    Instead it will read:

    I'm running for the door to get away from the fire
    --what was that sound?

    Or sometimes when the line ends in an M-dash, the Mdash is appearing on the line itself. My ebook designer can't seem to fix this. Do you know how how to ensure the Mdash is always attached to the preceding word? So it acts like a comma or a period, essentially, and never gets separated?

    Thanks for your help.

    1. It sounds like you need to put a hard space before the em dash. In Microsoft Word this is done by the ctrl-shift-space combination. A hard space will "glue" the em dash to the preceding word so any line break will occur after the em dash. When formatting for ebooks, I feel there should always be a space before and after an en or em dash. Otherwise, on small screens, you end up with badly-spaced lines.

  4. Ebooks is such great technology in this era. People more like to prefer ebooks for save their time. Here I get very useful information about formatting for ebooks and print.