Dashes (including faltering vs stuttering in dialogue)

Dashes (including faltering vs stuttering in dialogue)

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about faltering and stuttering in dialogue and dash usage.

It can get pretty confusing which to use when. It all comes down to what industry you’re writing in, but you should be checking a style guide right for the type of work you’re doing. One of the most common guides are indicated below and is used for fiction, some non-fiction, some online formatting, and some academic work. Other guides may have decided on a different course, so make sure you know which one is right for you. Don’t know? Email me (agent@catherinemilos.com), or check with your communications department, publisher, editor, or organization you’re writing for.

Some things you should know:

  1. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is the resource to use as a writer for your questions. They have an online forum which offers a lot of solution/discussion if you pay for a subscription (it is reasonably priced.) If you’re like me though, you can order a hard copy of the book online or find it in some bookstores.
  2. Faltering speech is equivalent to trailing off or lengthy pauses, “I. . . hmm. . .” (ellipses with spaces as per CMS)
  3. Stuttering speech is more jarring and jerking, “I—I—I don’t know!” (em dash, convention/CMS)
  4. An endash and double punctuation is used in unique circumstances
  5. Hyphens/regular dash should only be used for compound words or names, spelling out letters, or separate certain numbers

Here’s a great resource for you that summarizes what the Chicago Manual of Style says. (Note: she uses 16th edition, I use the most recent 17th edition right now, but the usage is the same in both editions.)


Ask the Editor: When and how do I use hyphens and dashes?

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