pauses typesetting break emdash endash hyphen semicolon parenthetical expressions

Self-Publishing Lessons Part 3: Non-Comma Pauses

Pauses that are not Commas: Asides, semicolons, hyphens, em-dashes, and en-dashes

Before I get to the column on the three types of editing and how to actually use publishing principles in self-publishing, there is one other grammar pet peeve I need to address so I don’t hate myself for leaving you in the dark. It’s about what those bigass letters say directly above this.

Commas give a mental pause during the reading of text, as I mentioned last time. Other things perform the same function, or similar functions, and possibly different functions as well. That’s why they’re used in other ways.

Most of this stuff is pretty simple. I’ll go down them in order from what should be least common, to what should be most common, in modern reading.


An aside is the term I use for your basic parenthetical interruption. I do it all the time. It’s a matter of style and taste how you use them, but the rules are pretty simple: don’t go overboard (I’m guilty of breaking that one! See? I can’t help myself sometimes, I’m doing it right now!), make sure you complete your thought within the parentheses, and make sure you finish the sentence within which the parenthetical expression is contained.

And COMMAS GO OUTSIDE THE PARENTHESES ALWAYS. Just as they always go INSIDE QUOTATION MARKS. (Forgot those lil’ comma rules last time, but them is the rules fo sho, yo.) And you should follow those rules for the same reason you should avoid adverbs in speech tags. Proper punctuation leads the eye. These conventions are so well established that readers can functionally ignore it completely, like we can basically ignore ‘he said/she said.’ The conventional punctuation just keeps the reader’s eyes moving along properly. Do it wrong, and it can give pause in the bad way, and can break immersion.


Honestly, most people should just not use semicolons. Save everyone (me) the headache.

Of every type of break, semicolons have the most damn rules, and make the writer look the most presumptuous (and foolish, if not stupid, when used questionably). There are definitely times when a semicolon is in order, such as in lists, but to use it as a parenthetical break is a big no-no. So if you insist on using semicolons, that’s fine, but you better know the fucking rules for their use. I recommend you just don’t. Use a comma-delineated list after a colon, or use em-dashes or parenthetical expressions, or best of all:  make the clause after the semicolon into a new sentence.

Semicolons are never required. If it’s not easier, why make a habit of it?


This is typesetting minutiae which nobody will notice if it’s right or wrong, unless they’re critically scanning your book in a layout program. (That’s not true, at all—any good editor can spot an en-dash from an em-dash from across the room. But nobody should, and in the near future, this will be completely true of a generation.) Nobody in fiction, at least.

An en-dash is the width of an N. It’s used to hyphenate numbers, and some other situations nobody cares about. (Easy mnemonic, huh? N is for Numbers.) It’s slightly longer than a hypen, but not as long as an em-dash.

Don’t worry about en-dashes at all, unless you’re getting paid to typeset someone’s book. And even then, only worry about them if the boss gives a shit about en-dashes. It’s anal in all the wrong ways for fiction. It can be noticed or even significant, like in textbooks. Also, in fiction, I know of a few times it was used to save ink and paper on a book which was observed to have a fuckton of em-dashes. To me, that’s a good call if you’re doing dead trees, and not at all petty or overly pedantic.


Now hyphenation ought to be fucking simple, and yet so many of you get it so wrong that I want to slap your hands with a ruler and send you back to third grade. I don’t want to spank you, I want to hurt you. Big difference (sometimes).

You hyphenate a word when:

  • It’s a compound word (which as you recall is two words squished together into one, like ‘mailman’ or ‘butterfly’) made of more than one word that is not a single word.

A single compound word—made of two other words, and which pretty much everybody knows—will be in the dictionary, and those don’t get hyphenated. Other compound words generally do.

  • When one modifier is modifying another modifier. This is called a compound adjective (or adverb).

(If there are one of each constituting the modifer, it’s a compound-whichever-one-it forms. I mean, you can have an adverb-adjective combination, but that’s always going to form a two-part adjective—because the whole thing will modify a noun. And since this tends, ‘in the field,’ to usually making an adjective, a lot of us just call them all ‘compound adjectives’ out of laziness. And hold, you see: that was me being overly pedantic, but I can’t help it. It trips my trigger to know trivial things about my craft and art (and everything else in the universe—have I mentioned yet how you should never nest parenthetical expressions one inside the other?). There are few instances I can imagine where the information in this aside would matter to anyone, and yet look here…I just got mileage out of it. You never know!)

How do you know when to hyphenate? Well, there’s a simple trick. Take the noun (“man” in this case) and apply each modifier to it directly. If that phrase does not make adequate sense or conveys a different meaning, then you need to hyphenate.

Say you’re writing a hucow book and you’re talking about a man who is only into milk from a woman’s tit. You could call him the ‘tit-milkman,’ but that would be wrong. He’s not a milkman who is famous for a tit. If he’s also a milkman, you could say that, but even that wouldn’t be clear. Is he a tit-milk man, or is he a tit milk-man?

He’s a tit-milk man, because he’s a man who is in to tit-milk.

Tit, milk, man. Tit applies to milk, not man. You’re not talking about a tit-man or a milk-man, you’re talking about a tit-milk man. Since ‘tit’ modifies ‘milk’ and not ‘man,’ it’s a compound adjective and it needs a hyphen. He may be a ‘tit man’ and he may be a ‘milk man,’ but if you want to say he’s a man who’s totally into just the milk from women’s breasts, then call him a ‘tit-milk man.’ Get it?

The hyphenation makes “tit-milk” stick together when the reader’s brain applies it to “man.” Do it right, and your readers will get it. Do it wrong, and they will stumble in their reading with momentary confusion. Bam! Loss of immersion.

Always remember, loss of immersion is the mind-killer for readers. Never let them realize they’re reading while they’re reading. That’s one of those rules you need to stick to until you know better. Use these devices to keep them moving along the page with a clear understanding of what you’re trying to say and you will have a happy reader.

  • Generally, you don’t need to hyphenate ‘-ly’ adverbs, either. The ‘-ly’ part gives readers enough of a heads-up that it’s going to be modifying whatever’s next, even if it’s not an object.


An em-dash is the long dash you get when your word processor autocorrects a double hyphen. It’s the width of an M. It’s the biggest of them.

You don’t have a key for it. The industry standard is a double hyphen with no spaces like this*–but I hold down the alt key and type 0151 on my numberpad, and I do it so often I don’t need to think about it. You can double-hyphenate if you prefer, but you’ll end up fiddling and fighting with it, sooner or later.

*[Correction: Damn wordpress auto-changed it. -- ]

This is mainly used for parenthetical asides. Use them when you want the aside to flow in a less-intrusive, less ‘off-topic’ way than with actual parentheses.

Otherwise, the rules are the same as for any other parenthetical expression. Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise.

Next Time

Next Sunday morning, we will be talking about the three kinds of editing, and a bunch of the stuff related to them. What they are, what they’re good and not good for, what to expect out of edits if you’re paying someone, and how to go about applying that particular industry concept to your own self-publishing efforts.

This fuckin ball is rolling now!

P.S. Minus signs are technically different than all of the line-shaped punctuation above. They get a space on either side, too.

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