Judging from my own experience while processing innumerable Word docs, em dashes give writers fits. I see everything from single dashes to multiple dashes to em and en dashes used indiscriminately—often with creative and/or inconsistent spacing. Go here for a good explanation of how they are used.
The number one problem is that the em dash is not on the keyboard. Good intentions or grammatical knowledge aside, it’s easy to make typos.
In MS Word, they are several ways to insert an em dash:
- Use a hotkey. Press the following keys simultaneously: Ctrl+Alt+- (the minus sign on the number keypad)
- Use Symbols. Go to the Insert Ribbon, click Symbols>More Symbols. In the task menu, click Special Characters. Em dash is on the list. Double-click to insert it in the text.
- Use AutoFormat. Go to File>Options>Proofing. Click “AutoCorrect Options…” and click “AutoFormat”. Check the box for “Hyphens (–) with dash (—). Doing this means whenever you want an em dash, type two dashes and Word will turn it into an em dash.
- Use a shortcut to auto-format. Go to Symbols>More Symbols. Click Special Characters. In the list of characters click the em dash once to highlight it. Click AutoCorrect. Check the box for “Replace text as you type” and check the “Formatted text” box. The em dash will be displayed in the “With” field. In the Replace field type in your shortcut. Two dashes (–) is the most common shortcut.
- Create your own hotkey. Go to Symbols>More Symbols. Click Special Characters. Click on the em dash to highlight it. Click the box for “Shortcut key”. The Commands field will have the em dash in it. “Current keys:” will show Word’s hotkey. In the “Press new shortcut key:” insert a new hotkey. In the image, my example is Ctrl+`. Make certain you don’t override any hotkeys you currently use or that can get very confusing. Click “Assign” and the hotkey is live.
- Use Find/Replace. This is a good method for those who don’t like AutoFormat and AutoCorrect, and have trouble remembering hotkeys. While you’re composing use a double dash to indicate an em dash (–). When you’re done writing, go to the Home Ribbon and click “Replace”. Click “More” to open the full Find/Replace task menu.
In the Find field: – – (two single dashes)
In the Replace field: ^+ (or click the box called “Special” and select Em Dash from the list)
Word Quirks to Drive You Nuts
Because Word is an office productivity program rather than a straight word processor, it doesn’t always get that it is perfectly acceptable to end dialogue with an em dash closed by a right (close) single or double quote mark. Depending on your version of Word, it will insert a left (open) single or double quote mark.
“Now is the time for all—“
(I say “depending on your version…” because Microsoft is always updating its products. On the computer I use for fiction, the problem persists despite updates. On the computer on which I’m writing this blog post, Word recognizes that a space or hard return after the quote mark means to use the right quote mark to close it. So if your version is inserting the correct punctuation, skip to the next quirk.)
If your version is putting left (open) quotes after dashes, your best defense is awareness. Either manage them as you go along—I type in a quote mark first, then insert the dash where it belongs—or run a quick Find/Replace operation when you’re done to fix them all with one Replace All. Doing it that way means you will have to copy/paste the correct dash and left (open) quote mark into the Find field, correct the instance, then copy/paste the dash and right (close) quote mark into the Replace field. That way Word knows to do what you intend to do.
In the Find field: ^+“
In the Replace field: ^+”
Replace All (But only if you know there aren’t any em dashes that should have a left quote mark. If that is the case, use Find Next and check each instance before you change it.)
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Another annoying quirk is Word’s tendency to orphan quote marks. The text wraps and the dash stays on one line and the quote mark ends up on the next line.
From a digital perspective, it’s mostly an aesthetic problem while you’re working in Word. Ebook devices have gotten smarter and I haven’t seen an orphaned quote mark in an ebook in quite some time. So if you’re formatting an ebook, grit your teeth and ignore it in your Word file, confident that your ebook will not experience the same problem. (Just so you know, Kindle devices do not recognize the No-Width Non Break or the Nonbreaking Space characters created in Word. That could change in the future, but currently that’s the way it is. I don’t know how it is with EPUB platform devices.)
Orphaned quote marks are, however, a problem in print documents—you do not want orphaned quote marks in a manuscript, print-on-demand edition or business letter. The solution is to insert a special character called a “No-Width Non Break.”
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to do a Find/Replace operation for this; Word disallows the character in search and replace fields. My recommendation is that once you have the print document formatted that you run a search for the em dash with a quote mark. If you find an orphaned quote mark, place the cursor between the dash and the quote mark, go to Symbols>More Symbols, click Special Characters and double-click the No-Width Non Break character to manually insert it. (In the Home Ribbon, click the Show/Hide icon—looks like a pilcrow ¶—so you can see that the character is inserted where you want it.)
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In the next blog post I’ll discuss the ellipsis character, which also seems to give writers fits. Watch this space.
My goal for 2018 is to teach as many writers as possible how to efficiently and expertly use MS Word as a writing and self-publishing tool. Watch this blog-space for more tips, tricks and techniques. Or, if you’d prefer all the information in one package, including step-by-step instructions for formatting ebooks and print-on-demand editions, WORD for the Wise: Using Microsoft Office Word for Creative Writing and Self-publishing is available at Amazon as an ebook and in print.