Home : Book Design Basics – Dashes, Hyphens and Dots

telegraphI particularly like this section on dashes, hyphens and dots because it goes beyond typographic aesthetics to explore how we can communicate more effectively as writers. The subtle intricacies of hyphens and dashes affect all authors whether they typeset their own books or not. Knowing how to punctuate correctly empowers you to control emphasis and handle challenging sentences that contain parenthetical asides, omissions or incomplete thoughts. Here, good typography is an extension of good writing.

Many writers are unaware that the simple dash comes in several flavors. Because dashes are often used as alternatives for other types of punctuation, they are explained here in context with the marks they substitute for.

Though some typographers insert small spaces between dashes and the words they surround or bridge, standard usage is not to use spaces before or after dashes unless the dash occurs at the end of a sentence preceding another sentence. As with periods, proportional typefaces “know” how much space to add around a dash (which is why the old practice of using two spaces after a period was abandoned when typewriters gave way to word processors).

Book Design Tip: The Hyphen Dash

The hyphen dash is used to split words across a line break or to join two words into one. Most word-processors and typesetting programs will automatically hyphenate words as-needed.

The waves glowed blue-green in the tropical sun.

Paragraphs containing long words require hy-
phenation to preserve even line length.

Book Design Tip: The Figure Dash

The figure dash is unavailable as a separate character in most typefaces. When typesetting subtracted characters, a hyphen-dash is generally used. However, the function of a figure dash is entirely different. See Chapter 3 of Book Design Basics on Tabular and Oldstyle Figures for more information about typesetting numbers. In mathematics, add spaces around the minus sign.

5 – 4 = 1

3 – 6 = -3

Book Design Tip: The En-Dash


The en-dash is slightly wider than a hyphen. It is used to indicate a range of values or a relationship between values. Traditionally, the en-dash is the same width as a letter n in a given typeface, but there are no firm standards.

Memorize the Dictionary in 4–6 minutes.

Registration takes place November–March

Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970)

Book Design Tip: The Em-Dash


The em-dash is slightly wider than an en-dash. Traditionally, the em-dash is the same width as a letter m in a given typeface. The em-dash functions much like a colon but it has greater emphasis. Think of an em-dash as a dash with a built-in exclamation mark. It suggests that some important piece of information is about to be added to a sentence.

He proofread the entire manuscript in one night—all 700 pages of it.

Use a colon for a list of items that requires no particular emphasis, or to indicate that one statement logically follows another.

He selected three colors: red, brown and yellow.

There was only one possible conclusion: John stole the eggplant.

Use an em-dash instead of parentheses to add emphasis to an internal part of a sentence:

He ate the cake—including the lit candles—in a single bite.

Use parentheses for less exciting information:

Be sure to take your Vitamin B3 (Niacin) every day.

Dashes (in their many forms) are a subtle but important part of typography.

Use an em-dash in place of an ellipsis (see below) to indicate a continued, unfinished or interrupted statement.

I don’t believe it! He actually intends to—

—but I wasn’t anywhere near that alley on the night of the murder!


Book Design Tip: The Ellipsis


The Ellipsis is commonly mistyped with three periods, but it’s actually a single character. For convenience, many word processors will substitute an ellipsis for you if you type three consecutive periods, but the ellipsis is its own single character.

Use an ellipsis instead of a preceding or trailing em-dash to indicate a continued, unfinished or interrupted statement that trails off into silence (aposiopesis for the obscure vocabulary word collectors in the audience) where no particular dramatic emphasis is required.

In The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst suggests the ellipsis should be spaced fore-and-aft to separate it from the text, but when combined with other punctuation, the leading space disappears and the other punctuation follows. Commas, question marks and other punctuation come after the ellipses. Think of the ellipsis as a word. Put spaces around it (or not) as you would any other word.

“I studied all last night but I don’t remember the answer. I just can’t…”

 An ellipsis is used to omit material from quotations.

We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union … do ordain and establish this constitution of the United States of America.

An ellipsis at the end of a sentence with no sentence following should be preceded by a period (for a total of four dots).

Once upon a time there was a princess…. And they lived happily ever after.

The ellipsis is used in mathematics to mean “and so on.” In a list, between commas, or following a comma, a normal ellipsis is used.


To indicate omission of values in a repeated operation, an ellipsis raised to the center of the line is used between two operation symbols or following the last operation symbol.

x = 1+2+3+•••+100

Finally, the ellipsis is often abused in casual email exchanges where it indicates  the writer is thinking, doesn’t care to finish a sentence that has an obvious meaning, or that the conversation will be continued later. Filling your writing with ellipses is the literary equivalent of stuttering, muttering and stammering. Good editors will tar and feather you for doing it.

Let me check my calendar … okay, I’m free tonight.

See you later …

Subtle variations in the length of a dash or the placement of a dot have a dramatic effect on the tone and precision of your writing. Writers who limit their usage to standard hyphens and periods create more work for editors and typesetters at the possible expense of failing to have their words communicate their intended meanings.

Writing and typesetting are interrelated crafts; both require an understanding of the intricacies of punctuation. In my other posts about book design, I encourage readers to work with professional designers or at least get some professional guidance and critique. Here, I strongly encourage working with a capable editor. Many self-publishers bypass this critical step citing good spelling abilities or cost as justifications, but working with an experienced wordsmith who has already mastered the powerful magic of punctuation and the subtle mysteries of language amounts to a priceless writing apprenticeship. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, take your writing seriously every step of the way from first draft to finished book.

Addenda: This article generated several responses from typographers who eschew use of the single, em-width ellipsis character in favor of using three periods separated by non-breaking spaces. Proponents of this form either feel that the single glyph is too tightly spaced or cite the three-dot formula specified by the Chicago Manual of Style. Some typesetters feel three periods with spaces is too wide while the one-character ellipsis is too narrow; preferring to customize the spacing to suit their tastes and the typeface being used. For an interesting discussion of the merits of different approaches see http://typophile.com/node/42278

Emily Clark Victorson  shared the following keyboard shortcuts for Microsoft Word for Windows: for an ellipsis, Ctrl + Alt + a period; for an em dash, Ctrl + Alt + the minus sign on the numerical keypad; for an en dash, Ctrl + the minus sign on the numerical keypad.

Grace Peirce offered this great resource for Word keyboard shortcuts:

More Book Design Basics:

Book Design Basics Part 1: Margins and Leading
Book Design Basics Part 2: Optical Margins, Indents and Periods
Book Design Basics Part 3: Running The Numbers
Book Design Basics - Dashes, Hyphens and Dots
Book Design Basics: Small Capitals – Avoiding Capital Offenses
Book Design Basics - Drop Caps and Initial Impressions
Article: Writing is Design: The Grammar of Book Design
Book Design Basics - Use Hyphens for Justified Type
Article: Fine Control Over Justified Text
Simulating the Appearance of Traditional Print
Page Layout: Illustrated Books and the Rule of Thirds
Book Cover Design: Moving from Screen to Printing Press
Book Design Basics: Quotation Marks and Primes
Book Design Basics: Choosing a Book Font


Book Design Basics – Dashes, Hyphens and Dots — 4 Comments

  1. This is a great explanation! One thing I’ve been wondering about is: should there be spaces around the em dash? I’ve seen different typesetting in a few books…some have a space before and after the em dash, and some leave it flush to the text. I wonder also if there is one rule for that in all languages, or if the spacing rule differs based on the language?

    • I don’t like spaces around emdashes. You get unintended line breaks with dashes jumping to the next line. Ideally, the spacing should be built in to the emdash character in your chosen font. If you want to modify it, do a find/replace when the boo is done and put a non-breaking space before and after the dash. I personally don’t like the extra space (the dash is long to begin with) but I know designers who do. Excellent question.

  2. To indi­cate omis­sion of val­ues in a repeated oper­a­tion, an ellip­sis raised to the cen­ter of the line is used between two oper­a­tion sym­bols or fol­low­ing the last oper­a­tion symbol.

    x = 1+2+3+•••+100

    (When I see the text, i see the ellipsis is not raised to the center. But when I copy pasted the text here to tell you about it, in the text box, the ellipsis looks raised to the center. Not sure how it will be once I publish the comment.)

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