Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2015

The Legal Writer

Dashes and Dots:
Decoding Hyphens, Dashes and Ellipses
By Elizabeth Ruiz Frost

In 1836, Samuel Morse began developing a code — using dashes and dots — to transmit natural language across an electric telegraph machine. Since then, 10-year-old children across the world have learned Morse Code to use their walkie-talkies with their friends, which they’ll do for approximately two months until the next awesome thing comes along. And oh, how fluently they can “dit” and “dah” about recess or building forts! But those same 10-year-olds often fail to learn how to use dashes and dots in their writing, which they will use for the rest of their lives. In this month’s column, we’ll decode some of the harder-to-crack punctuation marks.

The Hyphen (-)

Hyphens are probably more frequently used than dashes. But as simple and ubiquitous as a hyphen may be, its proper use can get a little confusing. Writers primarily use hyphens to create a compound term. Compound terms consist of one or more words put together to create a single term. Compound terms break into three categories. Some are closed compound words, like bookcase, online or mountaintop. Some are open compounds, like civil war and bar exam. Neither closed nor open compounds require a hyphen, so ignore those for the moment. In the third category are hyphenated compounds, where two words are held together by a hyphen. Let’s look closer at those.

Within these hyphenated compounds, there are three more categories of terms: nouns, verbs and adjectives. Here are some examples of hyphenated nouns and verbs.

Verbs: rubber-stamp, color-code, double-click

Nouns: mother-in-law, editor-in-chief, merry-go-round

Hyphenated verbs and nouns live in compound purgatory, not yet evolved enough to be considered a closed compound in common usage. Fortunately, these verbs and nouns are easy to deal with. If you need to know whether to hyphenate them, look them up in a good dictionary.

The hyphenated compound adjectives (called compound modifiers) are where things get a little more complicated. Compound modifiers are groups of two or more words that make a single adjective. With these, writers need to know the rules and can’t rely on a dictionary. While some commonly used compound modifiers might be in a dictionary (e.g., mass-produced), most won’t be.

So here’s the rule: when a compound modifier directly precedes a noun, it usually has a hyphen.

A 10-year-old girl (10-year-old is the compound modifier)

A long-term relationship (long-term is the compound modifier)

Note that in the rule above, when a compound modifier directly precedes a noun, it usually has a hyphen. A hyphen is usually but not always required because it comes down to a matter of clarity. If the phrase is completely unambiguous without the hyphen and couldn’t be misread, then a hyphen is not required. For example, no one would think of a small person in the phrase “small business owner.” But it’s never wrong to hyphenate a compound modifier.

This should not be read as a call to hyphenate every group of words! The most annoying hyphenation mistake that I see in legal writing could very well be the overuse of hyphens. First, hyphens are not necessary when the compound modifier begins with an adverb (typically, an “-ly” word). For example, apoorly worded apology does not need a hyphen between poorly and worded. Second, using the compound modifiers above, the phrases are hyphenated only because they precede the noun. If the adjectives followed the noun, they would not need hyphens.

The girl is 10 years old.

The relationship was long term.

The nitpickiness of these rules and exceptions is a little annoying, but think how impressed your friends will be when you recite them at your next social gathering!

The Em Dash (—)

An em dash is a good little multitasker. The em dash can replace commas, colons and parentheses. An em dash sets off explanatory text from the rest of the sentence, but it does so in two fun ways that make it worth using. First, it can increase the readability of a sentence. And second, it can amplify an idea by creating additional emphasis.

You can distinguish an em dash from its en dash brethren because it’s the longest dash (and both are longer than a hyphen). Some style guides, like the AP Style Manual, require a space before and after the em dash. But other guides — the Chicago Manual of Style, for example — include no spaces before or after it. At the risk of getting too technical, to make an em dash using a word processor, simply type two hyphens and the next word with no spaces. The program will convert the two dashes into an em dash. You can also insert it as a symbol.

Using an em dash in place of commas can improve the readability of a sentence, particularly if there are other commas in the sentence. Here’s a before and after showing how em dashes could replace commas:

The officer used a show of authority, brandishing a weapon, shining a flashlight into the defendant’s eyes and ordering the defendant to stay put, that made the defendant feel unable to walk away.

The officer used a show of authority — brandishing a weapon, shining a flashlight into the defendant’s eyes and ordering the defendant to stay put — that made the defendant feel unable to walk away.

The dashes set off the list from the rest of the sentence and clarify that the weapon, the light and the orders made up the show of authority. The commas in the first example are acceptable, but the sentence is less clear. In fact, the first sentence initially reads as a grammatically incorrect list that lacks parallelism. The second sentence presents no such problem.

Em dashes can be used wherever commas would set off a phrase. They needn’t be reserved only for mid-sentence lists, though they are nicely dramatic there. Here is an example:

She mailed the papers — instead of hand-delivering them as she had promised — to a P.O. box where they languished for months.

Setting that middle text off with the em dash emphasizes the text in a way that commas might not. An em dash can be used to set off text at the end of a sentence too, creating the same dramatic effect:

The prosecution based its case on a single witness — a witness who admitted to lying in multiple police interviews.

Em dashes create a more jarring pause for the reader than run-of-the-mill commas. If you want to draw the reader’s attention to a portion of a sentence that might otherwise get lost, try em dashes. But consider using them sparingly. Because they’re more jarring for a reader, writing that is rife with em dashes can begin to feel choppy.

Next, an em dash can replace parentheses. But parentheses and em dashes serve almost opposite purposes, so they should be used strategically. Parentheses suggest a less important aside than the remainder of the sentence. I tend to read parentheticals like text muttered under the writer’s breath. By contrast, em dashes emphasize the text. They demand the reader’s attention like a jab in the ribs.

Do you see a subtle difference in the effect of punctuation in these two sentences?

She left her entire estate to Rodney (a 13-year-old Retriever) instead of her husband.

She left her entire estate to Rodney — a 13-year-old Retriever — instead of her husband.

The first one seems intended to convey a little more information about sweet, old Rodney. The second one conveys the writer’s incredulity about the estate.

Finally, em dashes can replace a colon to create a dramatic Dateline-esque effect.

After only two hours of deliberation, the foreman delivered the verdict — guilty.

Use this construction in all sorts of contexts to make totally benign sentences seem ominous. For example:

We had just one animal left to see at the zoo that day — the giraffe.

See? I told you em dashes were fun!

The En Dash ( – )

The en dash is less exciting than the em dash because its role is quite minor. En dashes follow the same rules as em dashes for their spacing, but they’re just a bit smaller than an em dash (but bigger than a hyphen). The en dash deserves to be smaller because it serves one primary function — to replace “to.” En dashes sit between numbers most of the time, but sometimes words, to mean “up to and including” in a span or range. Here are a few examples:

The LaGuardia–Dulles flight is always booked.

The Timbers beat the Sounders, 3–1.

The rules about en dashes are in Sections 6.78–6.81 of the Chicago Manual of Style.

I lived there for three years: 2010–2013.

When using an en dash to convey a range, it should never be used in a sentence where the words fromor between precede the range. For example, the following examples are wrong:

School is open from August–June.(The dash cannot replace “to” here.)

I eat between 7–10 pints of ice cream per month. (The dash cannot replace “and.”)

While an en dash’s primary function is to replace to, an en dash can also serve a more complicated substitute function. An en dash can also appear in place of a hyphen in a compound adjective when one of the elements is an open compound or it can separate two hyphenated compounds, all of which were defined above. Whew, that’s a mouthful. The problem is, sentences with all those compounds get pretty convoluted, so instead of replacing hyphens with en dashes, some writers will simply rephrase the sentence to avoid the mess altogether. This subtle little rule is best explained by examples.

We’ll start with the open compound rule. Let’s say you wanted to use log cabin as an adjective. Log cabin is an open compound because the adjective here (log) gets used with its noun (cabin) to create a new noun. To describe a log cabin–inspired house, you’d separate the open compound from the second element (inspired) with an en dash instead of a hyphen. By contrast, had you simply written cabin-inspired, the compound could be hyphenated. Here are a few more examples:

Oprah Winfrey–style book club

post–Revolutionary War era

real estate–based reality show

An en dash might also connect two hyphenated compounds. Remember, hyphenated compounds are made up of two or more words connected by a hyphen. Each hyphenated compound has its own hyphen and the two compounds are joined by an en dash. Separating two hyphenated compounds with an en dash makes sense because otherwise there’d be a seemingly endless string of hyphens. Here are some examples (the difference in line length is subtle, so look closely):




For these final examples in particular, one wonders whether it would be simpler to rephrase the sentence instead of piling up hyphenated compounds, one atop the other. A sentence with “70-year-old–mother-in-law” could easily read “my mother-in-law, who is 70 years old, …” instead.

The Ellipsis ( . . . )

Sometimes I fear ellipses have become America’s primary punctuation marks, replacing all commas and periods in all circumstances. (If you read emails from my aunt ... I think you’d have the same fear … ) Ellipses can be used in informal writing to suggest an incomplete thought or the writer’s hesitance, but they shouldn’t be used in formal writing, except in quotations.

As a general matter, writers use an ellipsis to show an omission of a word, phrase or sentences in quoted material. Legal citation guides like the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation and The Bluebook contain specific rules about using ellipses in quotations. For more examples than are provided in this column, reference your citation manual.

With a mid-quotation omission of words, simply insert an ellipsis in place of the omitted words. For example, this sentence from John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech has a few words omitted:

“In your hands … will rest the final success or failure of our course.”

When omitting words from the end of the quoted sentence, the ALWD Guide and The Bluebook instruct writers to insert an ellipsis before the sentence’s final punctuation. Nonlegal style guides differ on this point. MLA conforms with legal citation guides and requires ellipses. But Chicago Manual of Style allows writers to omit the ellipsis. Here’s an example, also using Kennedy’s inauguration speech:

ALWD/Bluebook/MLA: “Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance … ?”

Chicago Manual of Style: “Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance?”

An ellipsis cannot double as a period, so if an ellipsis appears at the end of a sentence, it must be followed by a final punctuation mark (i.e., four dots). Note in the previous examples, however, the final punctuation mark in the original text was a question mark.

If the omission comes from the beginning of the quoted material, you need not use an ellipsis. Just begin the quotation, altering capitalization as necessary. If a quoted phrase is plucked out of a longer sentence, ellipses need not appear at the beginning and end of the phrase. The writer can simply quote the phrase. As an example, I’ll pull an excerpt from the midst of the most famous line of Kennedy’s inauguration speech: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Note the lack of ellipses in the following example:

Thousands of young Americans heeded Kennedy’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you” by volunteering for community service programs.

Finally, getting technical once again, the dots in an ellipsis are not simply three periods in a row. Each period should have a single space on each side. Note the full space between the words and each period in each of the examples above. Most word processors will reformat three periods into something short of a full space between them. To properly format an ellipsis, you might have to override your autoformat function. Whether anyone (present company excluded) would notice or care about improperly formatted ellipses is a different matter.


Hyphens, dashes and ellipses are all over modern writing, from email to blogs to newspapers. I might sound a little crazy calling them trendy, but I think they might be kind of trendy! Unfortunately, a lot of the users are doing it wrong, even though the rules are pretty simple. Em dashes, en dashes, hyphens and ellipses all serve important purposes, though their purposes are limited. Use them as they were intended — to connect, clarify and amplify. And if a child ever asks you for walkie-talkies, buy her a Chicago Manual of Style instead. It’ll make her cry at first, but she’ll be grateful in the long run.

Elizabeth Ruiz Frost teaches legal research and writing and other courses at the University of Oregon School of Law.

An archive of  The Legal Writer articles is available here.

© 2015 Elizabeth Ruiz Frost

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