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Serial Commas, Ellipses, and Em Dashes

Our expert creative writing proofreaders at Writer’s Relief offer some hints on how to properly use serial commas, ellipses, and em dashes in your writing.

How To Use Serial Commas
There is much confusion over how to use serial commas in a sentence. What is a serial comma? What are serial comma rules? How do you know how to punctuate commas in a series?

The serial comma rule refers to the stylistic choice of inserting a comma before “and” in a list.

For instance:

“My favorite colors are purple, yellow, and pink.”

This comma rule is cited in The Chicago Manual of Style and The Gregg Reference Manual. The purpose of including this final comma before and is for clarity and to give each word or phrase equal weight in the sentence. These days, the comma before and is the most widely used style of punctuating items in a series.

There is a story which illustrates the importance of the serial comma rule. A man wrote a will leaving his estate to his three children, “Richard, John and William.” The judge divided the man’s estate, leaving half to Richard and half (or one-quarter each) to John and William. Their father intended to divide his estate into thirds; however, the absence of the final serial comma gave John and William together the same weight as Richard alone.

How To Use Ellipses
What is an ellipsis? What is the plural of ellipsis?
An ellipsis indicates a pause, an omission, or an open-ended thought. An ellipsis is notated as either … or . . . The plural of ellipsis is ellipses.

How do you correctly use an ellipsis?
The first (most widely preferred) method is to use the automatic symbol insert key from a computer word-processing program. Why? An automatic ellipsis has a slightly different shape than a manually inserted ellipsis. The ellipsis symbol is found under the “Insert” or “Symbol” fields in your tool bar. Use the “help” bar if you can’t find it. 

The second way to insert ellipses is by using the space bar and periods from the keyboard in this way: space, dot, space, dot, space, dot, space. If you are not comfortable using the automatic word-processing function, feel free to use the alternative hand-inserted method. The important thing is that you are consistent throughout your manuscript.

Should you put a space after an ellipsis?
Many experts advocate including a space before and after the inserted ellipses; others do not.

What do you do if your sentence ends with an ellipsis?
If the ellipsis ends a sentence, do not add a final period; however, you can include an exclamation point or question mark after the ellipsis.

How To Use An Em Dash

What is an em dash?
An em dash is a long dash in a sentence (as opposed to a short dash).

What’s the difference between an em dash, an en dash, and a hyphen?
An em dash is long and used to indicate a break in syntax—like this. It gets its name from being the same width as a capital “M.” An en dash is a short dash that is used to indicate “through” when talking about dates and times, as in 1978-1979. A hyphen is used to link words, like soul-sucking punctuation.

Is it acceptable to use double hyphens as an em dash instead of a single, long dash?
In the past, an em dash was indicated using two dashes, like this: — However, as word processing programs became more sophisticated, the two hyphens were replaced with a smoother and more professional dash symbol: —. When possible, skip the double hyphens. Choose to insert the em dash symbol using the standard symbols in your word processor.

Should I put a space before or after a dash?
There are no spaces inserted either before or after an em dash. For example:

The snow is really starting to come down—just like I said it would—and now we’re all going to be snowed in.

Want to learn more about how to become a professional proofreader? Want to learn more about the proofreaders at Writer’s Relief? Our proofreaders are just one part of our author’s literary submission services that creative writers use to submit their writing to the best-suited literary agents and editors. If you don’t like chasing around your ellipses, em dashes, en dashes, and serial commas, our proofreaders will be glad to do it for you!

10 Responses to Serial Commas, Ellipses, and Em Dashes

  1. Many word processors will interpret a double hyphen (keystroke) as an em-dash and insert the appropriate mark. Some (usually desktop publishers rather than simpler word processors) also distinguish between em- and en-dashes, depending on how strong of a break you want. And–of course–if you’re submitting under text (ASCII) format, you’re left resorting to the double hyphen, anyway.

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