Punctuation Purgatory: The Em Dash and the Ellipsis

There are some people who smugly believe they are the bane of my existence. Sorry. My Cone of Silence is such a powerful force field, no mere human being can annoy me for long. The true bane of my existence is punctuation in ebooks. Especially the two characters most beloved by fiction writers: the em dash and the ellipsis.

On the good news front, the people who program Amazon’s Kindles have solved the em dash problem. It used to be that Kindles treated two words joined by an em dash as a unit. Hence, it could cause big, ugly spaces in sentences when the text flow jumped that “word” to the next line:

You’re innocently typing along and minding
your own business and decide, for good
or maybe not so benign
reasoning–character counts in this business,
you know–and there’s a big ugly space…

It appears now that every em dash is flanked by zero-width non-joiners. What that means is, the em dashes break when they reach the end of a line. No more big, ugly spaces in sentences.

Every silver cloud must have a spot of puce. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t bitch about it. The rule appears to be iron-clad, even for em dashes at the end of a line of dialogue.

“Hey, stupid! Watch out for that–”

No problem–unless your dialogue runs a little long and the text wraps to the next line.

“Hey, stupid! You better watch out for that

This would be an easy fix. Just slip a zero-width joiner between the word and the em dash so it’s not allowed to break at the end of the line. EXCEPT Kindles no longer recognize the zero-width joiner entity. I can put them in, but the device just ignores them.

Le sigh...


Ellipses never seemed to cause much problem on the device end–the problems were caused by writers using three periods instead of an ASCII character. Or worse, trying to go for the “bookish” look and spacing the periods. This caused a whole generation of orphans on the screen.

What are saying, Jaye? My ellipses are.
.. improper?

Or something even sadder can occur. The
poor little orphaned period sitting all alone..

The cure for this is simple. If you are using Word, run a Find/Replace All operation with three periods in the Find box and three periods in the Replace box. Word will automatically change your three periods into ellipses that the ebook will treat as a unit. If you’re using html, do a Find/Replace to turn the three periods into the ASCII character.

What if you want spaced ellipses? Normally I discourage that. Spaced ellipses are just asking for trouble. They look fabulous in print, but they play havoc in ebooks. An ellipsis at the beginning of a line or even sitting by itself on a line looks a bit odd, but it’s acceptable. An orphaned period or two periods looks like a mistake. Plus, justification could warp them out of shape. That is not acceptable.

But. I have a client who really, really, really wanted spaced ellipses and was willing to risk a platoon of orphaned periods to get them.

I came up with a solution that is so simple, so elemental I feel like a dope for not thinking of it before. The no-break space.

In html the entity is & nbsp ; (but all closed up–the spaces are just to fool wordpress). So, a spaced ellipsis would look like this:

nbspThe first line is a regular ellipsis. The second is an ellipsis with punctuation. On the Kindle it will look like this:

. . .

. . . ?

Ta da! Spaced ellipses the Kindle treats as units.



Cheat Sheets for Ebook Formatting

For all you brilliant people who write short, snappy, easy to understand How-To guides (about anything) I bow to your great talent. It’s hard to do!

For quite a while I’ve been promising to post cheat sheets on what I’ve learned and am learning about ebook formatting , but quite frankly, folks, writing something that doesn’t sound horribly complicated or even ridiculously complicated is damned hard to do. I’ve started them, revised them, chucked them out, started over, screeched in frustration and wondered what the hell is wrong with me that I can’t even explain something as simple as a search function without making it sound like building plans for the Sistine Chapel.

But I had the bit in my teeth and I was determined to keep going. What saved me was the knowledge that I can always change, update, refine and otherwise make the cheat sheets better as I get better.

What truly motivated me to keep going is the knowledge that ebook formatting—formatting beautiful functional books—is NOT THAT HARD. One should not have to be a computer whiz (which I am not) or a computer programmer (which I am not) or a graphic designer (which I am not) in order to turn one’s written work into an electronic file suitable for distribution into the major markets. There is a learning curve and it does require paying attention to details. What it doesn’t require is a degree in computer science, specialized equipment or expensive programs. If you’re composing your work on a computer and you’re reading this, you already have the tools you need.

The cheat sheets I’m posting are NOT comprehensive—know that up front. They are based on my experiences, things I’ve learned and obsessed about and tinkered with and actually tried. I’ve formatted about 50 ebooks so far and still have a lot to learn. That is a roundabout way of saying, I’m always open to suggestions. Tips, tricks, problem-solving, all are welcome. In fact, it would be fun and useful to make a feature along the lines of Tips From Readers. (hint, hint, folks, send them in—I post links…)

The cheat sheets are not just for formatters—they’re for indie writers. If you have a work you’re going to self-publish and you’re looking for information about how to go about it, but you intend to hire someone to format your book for you, you’ll find information about distribution and source files and organizing your book and how to work with a formatter. I’m breaking the cheat sheets down into components, so you only need to read what’s relevant to your needs.

Anyway, take a look at the header bar where it says CHEAT SHEETS FOR EBOOK FORMATTING. There’s a drop-down menu. There are three cheat sheets live already and more to come. So watch this space.

If you want to talk to me about your book or need some clarification, you can email me at

jayewmanus at gmail dot com