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

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:

The com­plete Book Design Basics series:

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 Part 4: Dashes, Hyphens and Dots
Book Design Basics Part 5: Small Capitals – Avoiding Capital Offenses
Book Design Basics Part 6: Drop-caps and Initial Impressions
Book Design Basics Part 7: Use Hyphens for Justified Type
Book Design Basics Part 8: Fine Control Over Justified Type
Book Design Basics Part 9: Simulating the Appearance of Traditional Print
Book Design Basics Part 10: Page Layout: Illustrated Books and the Rule of Thirds
Book Design Basics Part 11: Book Cover Design: Moving from Screen to Printing Press


Book Design Basics — Dashes, Hyphens and Dots — 2 Comments

  1. 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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