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Passing Thoughts

Dashes and Quote Marks and Ellipses, O My!

There are certain characters that are traditionally used in English-language printed text, but too often different characters are substituted when a computer is involved. There are a few reasons for these substitutions. In some cases (with decreasing frequency) the text is limited to a small character set such as ASCII. Much of the time, the person entering the text doesn't know how to enter the correct characters if they're not found directly on the keyboard. Or the person doesn't know the difference between the proper character and its common substitute. Or the person knows the difference, but simply can't be bothered to use the correct character. Microsoft Word has for many years attempted to compensate, but doesn't do so perfectly.

Hyphen, En Dash, Em Dash

The hyphen has legitimate uses. It can indicate that a word has been broken across multiple lines, though this isn't usually done manually. It is the correct separator in compound words such as well-trained or hunter-gatherer.

But the hyphen is also frequently and incorrectly used as the separator in a range of numbers. The correct character here is an en dash. For example, in Lincoln Tower, floors 2–14 contain administrative offices, while floors 15–24 are residential. The en dash is also properly used in identifying a relationship or connection between two entities. Much of State Route 161 is locally known as Dublin–Granville Road.

The em dash is the proper character to set off a side-thought within sentences—though parentheses can usually be used to similar effect. The common substitute is two adjacent hyphens; Microsoft Word usually auto-corrects two hyphens to an em dash.

Apostrophe and Quote Marks

Apostrophes are properly used in contracted words, and possessive forms of nouns. Microsoft Word usually auto-corrects typed apostrophes to beginning or ending single quote marks, because traditionally the apostrophe has also been used as an ambiguous single quote mark in computing. When the usage actually calls for an apostrophe, this behavior is semantically incorrect, though some may find the result more visually pleasing.

Single quote marks are properly used to mark the beginning and end of quoted literal text, usually in one of two contexts. One is when the quoted text appears within another quote. The other is when the passage isn't referring to a specific instance of the quoted text. Different characters exist for beginning and ending a quote. Microsoft Word usually does a good job of detecting whether a typed single quote mark should be a beginning or ending quote mark, except when it's supposed to be an apostrophe. In the past, some computer users have used the grave accent character as a beginning single quote, and the apostrophe as an ending single quote; neither substitution is proper.

Double quote marks are properly used to mark the beginning and end of quoted literal text, in the context of a specific instance of usage of that quoted text. Different characters exist for beginning and ending a quote, distinct from the ambiguous double quote mark found on most keyboards. Microsoft Word usually does a good job of detecting whether a typed double quote mark should be a beginning or ending quote mark. I have seen some instances of two adjacent single quote characters used instead of a double quote character; this is not proper.


Ellipses are used to denote omitted portions of a sentence, quote, or sequence, which are unnecessary to comprehend the whole or can be easily deduced from context. Ellipses are also used to indicate pauses in speech, or an unfinished or uncertain thought. An ellipsis is a single character, though most computer users will type a sequence of three adjacent full-stop (period) characters. Microsoft Word will usually convert this sequence to a proper ellipsis character. A better substitution is three full-stop characters with spaces before, after, and between, but a single ellipsis character is the ideal choice when possible.

Economy of Characters

In some situations, such as Twitter, it is desirable to minimize character counts of messages. Using proper em dash and ellipsis characters, rather than their multi-character substitutes, offers a slight practical advantage in these situations.

How to Type Proper Dashes, Quote Marks, and Ellipses

CharacterUnicode (dec)HTMLWindowsMac
– En Dash8210–Alt+0150Opt+-
— Em Dash8211—Alt+0151Opt+Shift+-
‘ Beginning Single Quote8216‘Alt+0145Opt+]
’ Ending Single Quote8217’Alt+0146Opt+Shift+]
“ Beginning Double Quote8220“Alt+0147Opt+[
” Ending Double Quote8221”Alt+0148Opt+Shift+[
… Ellipsis8230…Alt+0133Opt+;

As you can see, it's not that hard to use the proper characters. And while, most of the time, there's little practical difference, and few people will notice, isn't it worth it to do it right, just for the sake of doing it right?

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