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.




And Yet Another Post on That Pest, The Em Dash

Pardon my obsession, folks, but it’s the little things that drive me nuts. The lowly em dash, one of my favorite punctuation marks, drives me nuts in ebooks.

Kindle mobi files are lovely things. You can read them on your Kindle, Kindle Fire, computer, tablet, phone, or whatever your preferred device. The device will helpfully fit the text to your screen, and on the Kindle (don’t know about other readers) it makes a fair attempt at justifying the text. Look at the above image and see what happens when the file runs into an em dash that it believes is part of the words it connects. A monster space.

I read a lot of ebooks. Improper formatting can hurt you, the self-publisher. Oh sure, the weird spacing, font size jumps, orphaned punctuation, blank pages and other little irritants are only that, irritants. It’s not often I run into something that makes the text unreadable–it has happened, though. Sometimes I have to just grit my teeth and ignore the errors. Sometimes the formatting errors are so bad I will refuse to purchase from that particular publisher (or writer) again.

Now that I am learning how to format ebooks those little details obsess me. Then, I began to notice something. The majority of orphaned punctuation and monster spaces were showing up in some ebooks, but not in others. The problem is most prevalent in reissued back list titles. Ah ha, I thought, OCR–Optical Character Recognition. Publishers were scanning printed books and converting them to ebook files. That’s all well and good, except OCR files have to be proofread with extreme care because the print doesn’t always translate properly. Plus, OCR reads


as one word. Thus the ereader treats it as one word, too, so if it comes at the end of a line, you end up with a monster space. In order to prevent that, the formatter needs to go in and manually insert a “No-Width Optional Break.”

So, that led to me experimenting with Word to see how it handles the em dash.

In the version of Word I use (Word 2000), you will notice that Word has decided that between the first word and the em dash there is a No-Width Non-Break, meaning the first word and the em are forever joined. Between the em dash and the second word there is a No-Width Optional Break. There is no space between the em dash and the words it connects, but when it comes time to wrap to fit the screen, the break occurs and thus, there is no monster space.

happy– unhappy <–How Word actually sees the em dash

This is also quite elegant because it never allows the em dash to occur at the beginning of the line (which is nitpicky, but I’m a nitpicky person who believes punctuation should always be presented in context). Problem solved, right? Not right. Look at my poor little orphan quote mark. Word treats the quote mark as a word so the No-Width Optional Break rule is applied.

If I were a techno-geeky kind of person, I could fix that. I’m not. My version of Word does not allow me to insert No-Width Optional Breaks or Non-Breaks. Since this is standard formatting language, you can find out if your word processor or Word version allows you to manually insert those commands. Find SPECIAL CHARACTERS (in Word it is under INSERT and then SYMBOL. It will open a box that will let you find SPECIAL CHARACTERS. If there is a shortcut code (Ctrl + Whatever + Whatever) next to the special character, you can insert the code. If not, your version doesn’t support it). I’m pretty sure there are updates or special files that can be downloaded to allow for the characters.

Moving on… Since I’m using Scrivener to format mobi files, I wanted to see how the program handles em dashes.

Scrivener inserts the No-Width Optional Break before and after the em dash. That’s not wonderful. It’s not nearly as bad as the monster space, but an em dash at the beginning of a sentence is out of context. Not much, only a smidge, but it’s enough to give sensitive readers a slight pause as they figure out the meaning of the punctuation. And because of that, if the em dash is at the end of a piece of dialogue next to a quote mark, you end up with an orphan.

So I went looking in Scrivener’s CHARACTER MAP. This is what I found.

Those little blank boxes are actually codes. You select one, copy it and then paste it into the text where you want. If you’ll look at the Scrivener text image at the bottom you will see that by using the Narrow No-Break Space I hooked up the “else” with the em dash and quote mark. No orphan. This means I can go through the manuscript with the Search function and customize the em dashes. This requires patience and attention to detail. This code does NOT show up on the screen. Your text will look the same with or without the inserted code.

Also, Scrivener sort of freaked me out by inserting a paragraph return along with the code, which makes no sense, but then that’s why I’m NOT getting the big bucks. I just backspaced and it worked fine.

So, what I have learned so far.

  • If you are using an OCR file, you need to go in and manually insert either Optional Breaks or Non-Breaks between the em dashes and the words they are connected to.
  • Test whatever program you are using to see how it handles breaks. If the default set-up is screwing up your formatting, you need to manually insert Optional Breaks and Non-Breaks. Watch out for orphans.

Is this important? I vote yes.


Be Your Own Copy Editor: Punctuation

Here’s how it worked in the good ol’, bad ol’ days. A writer sent a manuscript to his editor. The editor made notes of any necessary revisions and sent that back to the writer, who then bitched, moaned, felt horribly insecure and insulted, and stuck a few pins in the editor-voodoo doll, then buckled down and made the revisions and sent them back to the editor. The manuscript might pass through a separate line editor’s hands, but always eventually ended up with a copy editor who, with red pencil sharpened to a dagger point and laser vision set on stun, went after misspellings, inconsistencies, wayward grammar and ineffective punctuation like a ferret after prairie dogs. Depending on the publisher and scheduling, the writer may or may not see the copy-edited manuscript. If the writer did receive galleys, he went through them in search of typos (cautioned by the editor to NOT make any big changes, or else) then sent the proofread galleys back and that was that. Wait for the book, short story or article to appear in print.

Not a bad system. Lots of eyes on the manuscript, fewer opportunities for typos and bloopers to slip through the cracks.

Self-publishers are at a disadvantage in that regard. Funds are tight and editors are expensive. Many indies have to get creative in bartering for services, engaging beta readers, and exchanging proofreading with other writers.

The smart indie learns how to copy edit.

That goes for experienced writers, too, who have left traditional publishing to strike out on their own. Judging from what I’ve seen, many of them aren’t obsessive-compulsives who compare original pages to the copy edited manuscripts to see what the changes were and why they were made. They sent in their quirks and copy editors fixed the quirks and the writers didn’t pay much attention to what the copy editors did. Without a copy editor, their quirks are showing. Need to put a stop to that nonsense.

Copy editing is a skill anyone smart enough to write fiction can learn. Today, let’s start with the most basic of basics: Punctuation.

Get a style manual (White & Strunk’s The Elements of Style is short, sweet and easy to understand). Read it, study it, take it to heart. I use a sad-looking and tattered Webster’s Ninth Dictionary I’ve been using for over 30 years. It rarely lets me down.

I’m not going to write a primer on punctuation. A style manual will tell you everything you need to know. Study it and learn the rules of punctuation. Apply those rules to your work.

Instead, I want to discuss something I’m seeing a lot of in self-published works. Writers trying to use punctuation for effect or for pacing in ways that call attention to the punctuation itself. A copy editor would strike such shenanigans with a red pencil, and for good reason. Punctuation that attracts attention distracts the reader and weakens the prose.

Think of punctuation as wait staff in a restaurant. Their job is to seat everybody, maintain order, get the food to the right diner at the right time, and keep everybody happy and content so they can enjoy the dining experience. Wait staff remains in the background, doing their job without drawing attention. Punctuation for effect is akin to the wait staff suddenly breaking into song or line dancing or marching through the restaurant with sparklers singing Happy Birthday. It’s obnoxious. If the food is good enough, diners tolerate it, but unless they’re under ten years old, nobody actually likes it.

The three marks I see most often abused: Dash or em dash; ellipses; exclamation points.

I’m a huge fan of all three. There is a fine line between effective use and ineffective use. They are what I consider “strong marks.” They alert the reader and put them on notice that something must be paid attention to. So, if they are overused they become the literary equivalent of car alarms. If they are misused, they confuse the reader and jerk them out of the story. Do that too often and your book could end up in the DNF pile.


DASH (two hyphens in a manuscript, a long dash in published form–indies, remember to use search-and-replace to convert your double hyphens into em dashes during ebook formatting)

  1. usually marks an abrupt change or break in the continuity of a sentence
  2. is sometimes used in place of other punctuation (as the comma) when special emphasis is required
  3. introduces a summary statement that follows a series of words or phrases
  4. often precedes the attribution of a quotation
  5. may be used with the exclamation point or the question mark
  6. removes the need for a comma if the dash falls where a comma would ordinarily separate two clauses

Rule of thumb: Use the em dash to indicate interrupted dialogue or to set off a parenthetical thought or clause in narrative. If  your pages are crawling with em dashes, ask yourself what exactly is it you are trying to do? If the answer is, you’re going for an effect (rapid pacing, disjointed thoughts, choppy movements) it is time to question each and every em dash. If the usage doesn’t coincide with the above list, strike the em dashes.

ELLIPSES: Three periods (When formatting a file for an ebook in Word, use the search and replace feature to make a proper ellipsis. Enter … in the search box and … in the replace box. Word will create a joined ellipsis for you.)

  1. indicates the omission of one or more words within a quoted passage
  2. indicates the omission of one or more sentences within a quoted passage or the omission of words at the end of a sentence indicated by using a period after the ellipsis
  3. indicates halting speech or an unfinished sentence in dialogue (no period, though a question mark is acceptable)

Rule of thumb: Use sparingly. Ellipses are NOT for authorial throat-clearing or to pace the action. If every line of dialogue contains ellipses, you need to rework the dialogue. Try to avoid using it in narrative. Remember that most readers associate ellipses with omission, so if you overuse them, your readers will be wondering what isn’t there instead of paying attention to  what’s on the page.


  1. terminates an emphatic phrase or sentence
  2. terminates an emphatic interjection

Rule of thumb: Use your indoor voice, please. Using an exclamation point is the equivalent of shouting. When you use it in dialogue, be aware that your readers are “hearing” your characters shout. If you use it in narrative, the readers will feel as if you, the author, are shouting at them. So every time you come across an exclamation point in your writing, question it. Unless you absolutely have to use it to make your meaning clear (as in, the character is actually shouting) strike it.

Now go sharpen those red pencils and hit the pages. Find your annoying little punctuation quirks and squash them like bugs.