Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)

Part I. Punctuation Basics

Chapter 3. Dashes, Semicolons, and Ellipses-Oh My!

Dashes, semicolons, and ellipses also serve as road signs for readers. They aren’t used nearly as often as commas, but it’s just as important to get these right as it is to get commas right—if not more so. In this chapter, we’re going to look at how fiction writers can use these different forms of punctuation to make sure their meaning is clear.


There are three types of dashes you need to know: hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.


Dashes are most commonly used in writing to denote compound adjectives—that is, when you have two or more words working together to modify the same word or phrase. In these cases, dashes are known as hyphens. They aren’t always strictly necessary, but they do make things a little clearer.

I’ll give you a couple examples so you can see this in action.

Wrong: Jennifer is soft spoken.

Right: Jennifer is soft-spoken.

Soft-spoken modifies Jennifer, so there’s a simple way to check if you should use a hyphen or not.

Remember, when we say one word modifies another, we’re meaning that it indicates or describes the place (e.g., above), the time (e.g., later), the manner (e.g., loudly), the circumstance (e.g., accidentally), or the degree (e.g., really) of the word it’s connected to.

So what type of woman is Jennifer? She’s a soft-spoken one. Can we break up soft and spoken without either losing or changing the meaning?

If we were to say Jennifer is soft, it wouldn’t mean the same thing.

We also wouldn’t say Jennifer is spoken. That doesn’t make any sense.

Because we can’t separate those two words, they need to be hyphenated.

I’ll show you a case where we could separate them.

Jane has dark, curly hair.

We don’t hyphenate dark and curly.

Jane has dark hair.

Jane has curly hair.

Both work.

Let’s look at another example where we do need a hyphen.

Wrong: The Broncos play in a mile high stadium.

Right: The Broncos play in a mile-high stadium.

Apply our little test again.

The Broncos play in a mile stadium…Nope.

The Broncos play in a high stadium…Maybe, but it wouldn’t mean the same thing.

But remember that, as problematic as it is to leave hyphens out when you need them, you also don’t want to add them in where they don’t belong.

Wrong: The game I bought cost twenty-dollars.

Right: The game I bought cost twenty dollars.

In this case, you don’t hyphenate twenty and dollars because they’re not modifying the same word. Instead, twenty modifies dollars.

How many dollars? Twenty dollars.

En Dashes

En dashes are most commonly used to denote ranges or relationships.

1999–2002 (range)

Mother–daughter conflict (relationship)

In Microsoft Word for Windows, the keyboard shortcut for an en dash is CTRL + minus sign.

Em Dashes

Em dashes are used to insert parenthetical expressions. You can tell a parenthetical expression because you can take it out of the sentence and the sentence still makes sense. But the parenthetical expression doesn’t make sense apart from the rest of the sentence. You can think about it almost like a parasite (parasite, parenthetical). It needs the sentence to survive, but the sentence doesn’t need it.

This part of the sentence makes sense—though this part doesn’t—so I inserted a pair of em dashes.

I’ll give you another example, one that you might see in a novel.

John loved her look—her shoes, her hair, her dress, even her artfully done makeup—and thanked Fate yet again that she had chosen to marry him, plain as he was.

Em dashes are also used when a character’s dialogue (including internal dialogue) is interrupted by something else. This use for an em dash is covered in more detail in Chapter Four.

In Microsoft Word for Windows, the keyboard shortcut for an em dash is CTRL + ALT + minus sign.


Semicolons are used when you want to join two related sentences together into a single sentence. A good way to determine when to use semicolons is if two related sentences make grammatical sense on their own.

I love pizza. Pepperoni is my favorite.


I love pizza; pepperoni is my favorite.

Both versions are correct. That said, there’s a running joke in the fiction world that you only get one semicolon per career, so you need to use it wisely. While that might be a little extreme, the point behind the joke is true. In fiction, we should avoid using semicolons whenever possible. If there’s a way to write the sentence without one, we should choose the option that avoids the semicolon.

I know that might sound arbitrary at first, but the reasons behind it are valid. Semicolons can look pretentious or awkward because many people don’t understand what they mean or how to use them correctly.

Worse, though, is that semicolons often look downright stupid or out of place. The worst offender is when we use a semicolon in our dialogue. No one speaks with semicolons.

Try it. I bet you can speak in such a way to imply a comma, a period, an em dash, or an ellipses. And I bet you can’t speak in such a way as to make it clear that you’re speaking a semicolon rather than a period.

When we’re writing fiction, the one time we do need to use semicolons is in a complex sentence where commas alone wouldn’t provide enough clarity. The semicolons take the place of the serial commas that would usually separate the main elements in the sentence.

Let me give you an example (since this is one of those times where it’s definitely easier to understand once you see it).

When Anna thought of summer at the beach, she always thought of the sunshine; the sand, water, and crisp ocean air; and the fresh seafood.

The bolded part is the part that makes us need semi-colons. That sub-section of the sentence needs commas, and so we need something else to separate it off from the other sub-sections. Look at a similar, simplified version where we wouldn’t need the semicolons.

When Anna thought of summer at the beach, she always thought of the sunshine, the ocean air, and the fresh seafood.

See how the bolded part doesn’t have commas anymore?


Ellipses are used in two main ways. Nonfiction writers will use them primarily when quoting a person or piece of writing to indicate the omission of a portion of the quoted material.

As fiction writers, we use them in a different way. Ellipses show a character’s words trailing off in either their spoken or internal dialogue. The character might be unable to bear finishing the thought or speaking the words, or they might be trailing off to allow a question or accusation to hang in the air.

Let’s say our point-of-view character has just received the news that she’s developed lung cancer after having beat breast cancer less than a year before. Her reaction to the news might go something like this…

She slumped forward, her face buried in her hands. After she’d battled so hard to… She shook her head. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

Before we move on, we’ll look at one more instance where a character might use ellipses in spoken dialogue. In this example, we have a mother and a daughter. The daughter has been pestering her mother to allow her to get her driver’s license. Up to this point, the mother has refused. Now, an eighteen-year-old boy has shown up at the door to drive her daughter to school.

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Lara said. “You won’t let me get my license and I hate riding the bus so…” She shrugged, grabbed her backpack, and headed for the door. “Besides, it’s just a ride. It’s not like we’re dating.”