Em Dashes and Ellipses in Ebooks

Although we love Chicago Style, just following it slavishly on every detail can produce some ugly results in your digital text.

In general, style guides are stuck in the print era. We have to adapt them for the realities of digital text in general and ebooks in particular. This need to adapt is most obvious in how Chicago treats two commonly overlooked characters: the ellipsis (…) and the em dash (—).

The Ellipsis

An ellipsis is used to show that something is omitted from the text. Chicago recommends printing it as three spaced periods ( . . . ). Unfortunately, this practice can cause some unpleasant issues with what we call “wrap,” which is the way that text breaks onto a new line when it runs out of space on your screen.

For instance, take a look at the ellipses in Chicago’s excerpt from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s preface to “Adonai”:

As to Endymion, was it a poem . . . to be treated contemptuously by those who had celebrated, with various degrees of complacency and panegyric, Paris, and Woman, and A Syrian Tale . . . ? Are these the men who . . . presumed to draw a parallel between the Rev. Mr. Milman and Lord Byron?

Now, if you’re reading this on your desktop browser, try grabbing the bottom-right corner of your browser window and narrowing the window’s width.

At some widths, you’ll see, the dots in one ellipsis or another will end up broken across two different lines. The same problem can happen if you do ellipses the Chicago way in your ebooks, depending on the size of the screen and the user’s settings.

That’s why we always use the ellipsis character (…) in our digital text. That special character keeps all three “dots” together, with no spaces between them. (Chicago, take heed.) For reasons that will become clear in a moment, however, we keep the spaces that separate the ellipsis from the words around it when the ellipsis appears midsentence. (See our tip sheet for a little more detail on ellipses.)

The Em Dash

The em dash — which marks an interruption or break in thought — is normally printed immediately adjacent to the words on either side of it, with no separating spaces.

For instance, Chicago gives this example:

The chancellor—he had been awake half the night—came down in an angry mood.

This practice works fine in printed publications. But when we close up em dashes that way in a digital document, it can cause some very ugly wrapping for browsers and ereaders that refuse to wrap on an em dash. They treat that em dash as just another character in a word, which turns things like “chancellor—he” into a single word as far as the ereader is concerned. 

Even worse: In a Kindle, when you try to highlight a section of text, the ereader will not let you select just “chancellor” or “he”: it will insist on treating the em dash as part of the highlight. 

That’s why we put spaces on either side of each em dash in all our electronic text.

These typographic issues of digital vs. print may seem tiny. But for good or ill, they can pile up in your ebook — making it look either sleek or stilted. Knowing how old style guides and new media come together can save you many hassles in production and give you a much better ebook in the end.

1 Comment

Filed under Ebooks

One response to “Em Dashes and Ellipses in Ebooks

  1. Wow! Thank you. So, it looks like for print book I should use the space.dot.space, but for ebook I should use the MS word auto-correct ellipsis?

    Whew, more editing between the two. How terrible would it be to have the MS word ellipsis formatting in print?

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