While I’m in the process of revising Punctuation For Fiction Writers, I thought I’d do a post on a few tips about using hyphens, dashes, and ellipses. I’ll also discuss the five uses of quotation marks, as inspired by a recent article from Daily Writing Tips.
Let’s start with quotation marks. The first point I want to drive home is that there is NO difference between single and double quote marks in terms of their significance. They are equivalent. In many countries that use UK English (with no slights intended for countries outside the UK that use “British English” conventions), single quote marks are often used, while in American English, double quote marks predominate.
I see writer all the time using single quote marks for emphasis or for scare quotes, as if they were different from double quotes. This is wrong.
The ONLY time to use single quote marks is when they occur within something in double quotes. Examples:
“Sorry, guys, but I can’t tell you,” Mark said. “Yesterday Angela was very specific when she told me, ‘Promise me that you will not to say anything to the others.’”
“Without a doubt ‘Hallelujah’ is Leonard Cohen’s most popular song,” James said.
(In UK English, the quote marks would simply be flipped, like this:)
‘Sorry, guys, but I can’t tell you,’ Mark said. ‘Yesterday Angela was very specific when she told me, “Promise me that you will not to say anything to the others.”’
‘Without a doubt “Hallelujah” is Leonard Cohen’s most popular song,’ James said.
Quote marks have five basic uses, and we’ve just seen two of those.
(1) In dialogue, we put directly spoken words in quotes.
NOTE: Direct thoughts should be put in italics, never enclosed in quote marks, since they are not spoken words.
(2) Titles of shorter works, such as songs, poems, and short stories, are put in quotes, while the titles of longer works (novels, movies, TV shows, plays) are put in italics.
(3) Words or phrases that need to be singled out are put in quotes (We too often use “sorry, I forgot” or “better late than never” as excuses for our forgetfulness or lack of caring.)
(4) Scare quotes are used to set off something being used to signify a meaning other than the conventional one: He’s “different.” He held up a bottle of the “good” stuff.
NOTE: It’s generally advised not to use scare quotes for normal slang expressions. Also don’t use them to emphasize something. That’s what italics are for. Examples: They were smoking pot. (not: They were smoking “pot.”)
(5) For special nicknames/epithets. Here’s a great article that shows off some uses of quotes for epithets and quote mark use in (3) above as well. Note that certain epithets (Alexander the Great) are generally not put in quotes when the name is not set off with punctuation.
Let’s move on to some special uses of the hyphen. First, do not confuse the hyphen with the em dash (—), a long dash. Hyphens are generally used to connect words in a compound word or to separate certain prefixes. While the current trend is to turn compound words into a single word, many compound words still retain the hyphen. Unfortunately, there are few rules telling us how to figure them out, so you should always look them up because they are changing.
I want to point out a few the frequent hyphen mistakes.
Never hyphenate -ly adverbs with an adjective:
a racially tense situation (not racially-tense)
a radically different approach (not radically-different)
But keep in mind that not all -ly words are adverbs (silly, friendly) and these are hyphenated.
a silly-looking hat
a friendly-looking dog
Other adverbs that do not end in -ly ARE hyphenated with adjectives when they precede the noun: a high-ranking official (but “a highly ranked team”).
Be careful with compound adjectives and be sure that you include ALL of the adjectives, and not the noun, in the hyphenation scheme.
a twenty-three-year-old man (I see this written incorrectly a lot, often leaving only the hyphen between “twenty” and “three” or leaving out the one before “old”)
The storm like the one in 1950 hadn’t been seen since 1900 and became a once-in-fifty-years snowstorm.
Our punctuation book goes into this is a lot more detail, and the revision will be adding to the HYPHENS chapter.
The last topic of this post will be dashes and ellipses.
There are two types of dashes, the em-dash and the en-dash. Here I’m referring only to the em-dash (the longer of the two), which some of you recall was done on typewriters with two hyphens together. Oddly enough, I still see people doing that, but I also see writers using a single hyphen as well. (The punctuation books discusses the uses of the en-dash.)
The dash represents an interruption. It’s used to show an interruption in dialogue or to indicate a parenthetical remark (when parentheses aren’t being used). Examples:
* * *
Some writers prefer to use dashes to insert comments in their writing (I prefer parentheses for comments and dashes for a stronger interruption).
Some writers prefer to use dashes to insert comments—I prefer parentheses for comments and dashes for a stronger interruption—in their writing.
* * *
Ellipses (…) represent a different kind of interruption. Originally intended to show an omission in text or a quote, the ellipsis came to be used to signify a trailing off of dialogue or thoughts.
Here are two examples of roughly the same scene but punctuated differently to show different meanings of the two passages.
WITH A DASH:
* * *
John was telling us about his first deer-hunting experience with his father. “There’s nothing like your first kill to—”
“It’s wrong to kill anything!” Evan said.
“If you’d let me finish, I was going to say there’s nothing like your first kill to make you realize how precious all life is.”
* * *
* * *
John was telling us about his first deer-hunting experience with his father. “There’s nothing like your first kill to… make you realize how precious all life is.”
“I totally agree,” Evan said. “Killing for pure sport is wrong, but killing for food, to survive…
“Is sometimes necessary,” John added.
* * *
In the first example, Evan interrupts John, and the dash shows that. In the second example, the first ellipsis shows John pausing. The second ellipsis in Evan’s dialogue shows his speech trailing off. John is not interrupting him, merely finishing the thought.
You can also use a dash if the speaker is interrupted by an outside event (a noise, the speaker coughs or sneezes) or the speaker interrupts himself deliberately. Example:
* * *
Emily, in tears, yanked the engagement ring off her finger. “Here! Take it and—” She threw it at Edward. “—give it to your boyfriend!
* * *
Or for alternative punctuation you can do it this way (but I think the first way looks better):
* * *
Emily, in tears, yanked the ring off her finger. “Here! Take it and”—She threw it at Edward.—“give it to your boyfriend!
* * *
A word of caution: Use ellipses and dashes SPARINGLY! I’ve edited some manuscripts where the authors got carried away with both forms of punctuation.
Ellipses should only be used to show a pause or trailing off and should be used RARELY to show a transition. Occasionally writers will end a scene with an ellipsis as a means of foreshadowing more to come or even at the end of a story to show that this wasn’t the final end of things. That’s a legitimate use of ellipses, but you should not use ellipses at the end of paragraphs of narrative as a meaning of pulling the reader forward. Example:
* * *
Adam buzzed the delivery kid in, then put on the bulletproof vest that resembled a heavy sweater, strapped a gun behind him, and clipped an extra-strength pepper spray onto his belt. The micro camera installed above the door let him check visitors in complete safety. He watched the monitor and waited…
When he saw the kid, Adam unclipped the spray can, opened the door, and stepped into view.
* * *
In this example, the ellipsis at the end of the first paragraph is used to signify the waiting period, but it’s a questionable use of ellipsis and probably not the best way to cast this. If the writer only does this occasionally, it’s acceptable, but if the writer makes a habit of the practice, then it loses its effectiveness. Punctuation should be used to enhance the writing, not as a crutch, and not overused. Adam lives in a penthouse apartment, so we could easily recast the paragraphs something like this and use the waiting time to reveal information instead of spitting it out as was done in the first rendering.
* * *
Adam buzzed the delivery kid in. While he waited patiently for the elevator to deliver the kid to the penthouse, Adam put on his bulletproof vest that resembled a heavy sweater, strapped a gun behind him, and clipped an extra-strength pepper spray onto his belt. The micro camera installed above the door let him check visitors without having to stand behind the door to peer through a peephole.
When the kid appeared on the monitor, Adam unclipped the spray can, opened the door, and stepped into view.
* * *
Granted, this is a matter of preference, but the second rendering lets us maintain our reliance on the more common forms of punctuation and reserves the less common ones for those situations where they are truly needed. That way, they won’t lose their effectiveness due to overuse.