How to Irritate an Editor

Punctuation is an aspect of English with which many writers struggle. But we must face the reality: incorrect punctuation raises a red flag for editors and makes them more inclined to toss your submission into the trash.

I’m not talking about a missing comma here and there, but flagrant incorrect punctuation. As much as some might hate it, correct punctuation is critically important to your submission. 

So today, let’s take a look at the ellipsis and the em dash—two punctuation marks that get misused and often over used.

The Ellipsis

The ellipsis (three spaced periods . . . ) indicates in dialog that the speaker hasn’t finished his or her words, or shows a pause in the dialog.

“I’m not . . . I don’t . . . ,” Mark stammered to his friend. “What if she says . . . no to my marriage proposal?”

An ellipsis is also used to show that one or more words have been omitted from a direct quote.

The mayor said that “the working citizens . . . lose 37% of their paycheck to taxes.” In this example, the ellipsis indicates the mayor spoke something more in between “citizens” and “lose” that was irrelevant to the quoter’s purpose. Never omit words that will change the meaning of the source being cited.

The Em Dash

The em dash indicates a dramatic shift in tone or thought within a sentence.

This dash is so named because it is about the same width as the letter “m.” You create it by using two dashes together without any space between. Word processing programs will often autoformat it for you so it appears as one long dash as it should.

His marriage proposal—would she say no?—got caught in his throat before he began.

When used in pairs, the portion set off by the em dash gets the most emphasis. In other words, it stands out as the most important part of the sentence.

The em dash can also be used in as a single dash. His marriage proposal got caught in his throat before he began—would she say no?

Use the em dash in dialog when you want to indicate an interruption.

“Of course she’ll—”
“Say yes,” John finished Mickey’s sentence.

Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference states the em dash “is the most dramatic punctuation mark you can deploy within the interior of a sentence. Use it sparingly.”

If you’re weak in punctuation, find a good reference book to use in your editing process because the better your punctuation, the more likely the editor will notice your wonderful story instead of your poor punctuation.

What punctuation mark gives you fits, the one you just can’t seem to master? Post your response in the comments section and I can either answer your question now or address your question in a future blog post.

Want to get published but don’t know where to start?

Maybe you have a finished manuscript or just an idea stuck in your head. Email me today at Deb [at] DebraLButterfield [dot] com, and let's discuss how I can help you reach your dream of publication.


  1. julielcasey says:

    Thanks, Debra. Very informative. I have a question for you (actually two): what is the difference between an em dash and an en dash and how do you make them in Word? Is the en dash the one on the keyboard? I use shift-alt-dash to make the em dash. Is this correct?

    • The en dash is the length of an n –, and is used to take the place of the preposition “to” in inclusive phrases, according to my Desk Reference. For example, 2001–2014, rather than the hyphen, which is shorter. Hyphens (-) are for phone numbers and to hyphenate words.

      Shortcuts to create dashes vary according to Mac or PC. For a PC the Alt key and on the numeric keypad 0150 for an en dash; ALT +151 for an em dash. The numeric keypad to the right of the letters must be used. So if your keyboard doesn’t have a number keypad you can access a program called Character Map from your start menu and retrieve what you need from there.

      If you’ve been getting an em dash with what you do, I’d say keep using it, but make sure it is as long as an “M” is wide.

      • julielcasey says:

        Thanks for the clarification. I have a PC keyboard attached to a Mac, so I don’t know if that makes a difference, but I use shift-alt-dash for the em dash. I’m not sure how to get an en dash, although, when I’m typing fast and put two dashes in a row, Word for Mac will sometimes change them to an en dash. Not always, though. It’s odd. :/

  2. Debra,
    I’m generally skillful in punctuation and spelling. Your post clarifies the purpose of the ellipsis and em dash. I sometimes get the two of these confused. Also, I recently learned if you have an ellipsis at the end of a sentence, you need to put 4 dots.

    • Amy, thanks for that last bit of info about 4 periods. You’ll want to use the fourth period only if you have a complete sentence. I didn’t want to go into it in my post, but there is variation between different style manuals on how spacing is treated for each of these marks as well.

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