A guide comparing Associated Press style and Chicago style for editors, writers, teachers, students, word nerds, and anyone else who gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.

Em Dashes and Ellipses: Closed or Spaced Out?

You might be wondering why I've paired the em dash with the ellipsis. Doesn't the em dash usually get grouped with the en dash and the hyphen? Or, less commonly, with the comma, the colon, and the parenthesis? Sure . . . but those set you up for a discussion on usage, not style. (Please consult your favorite grammar book or blog for notes on usage.) If you look at these marks with style in mind, the ellipsis is most similar to the em dash.

This is the basic difference in how ellipses are rendered in AP style and Chicago style:

AP (p. 369): An ellipsis consists of three periods, with a space before and after.
  • Hey, guys ... what are you talking about? What's going on? Are you done eating that?

Chicago (13.48): An ellipsis consists of three spaced periods, with a space before and after.
  • Love is . . . retweeting.

So AP's ellipsis is three dots shoved together, Chicago's ellipsis is spaced out, and they both like spaces around the dots. Got it. A complication arises when people insist on using the ellipsis closed (i.e., without spaces between the dots). In that case, I recommend that you omit the space on both sides when attempting to follow Chicago style; this will match Chicago's spacing preference for the em dash.

I do hope that I'm the only one who works with account executives who make editorial decisions based on how pretty something looks rather than how much sense it makes. If not, let's start a support group. We can sit around, looking forlorn but hopeful. The group will be called Hyphens Are Not Ugly.

There's a part in the Chicago Manual of Style (13.48) which says that you, the writer, can use the three-dot glyph provided in word processors (Option-; or Alt-0133), but we, the editors, are just going to change it to the properly spaced version—with nonbreaking spaces between each period, of course. Nice. Likewise, if the author types two hyphens to represent an em dash, the double hyphen will be converted to a proper em dash. It's quite janitorial in nature, but I suppose much of editing is.

This is the basic difference in how em dashes are rendered in AP style and Chicago style:

AP (p. 368): An em dash, like an ellipsis, has a space before and after, except when used to introduce items in a vertical list.
  • When she called her cats — Chardonnay, Patron and Guinness — the neighbors came running.

Chicago (2.13): An em dash has no space before or after, unless you're doing some fancy word-replacing maneuvers with a 2-em dash.
  • Glitter, felt, yarn, and buttons—his kitchen looked as if a clown had exploded.
  • Miss S—— killed Professor P—— with a candlestick in the study.

Note: If you begin a line with an em dash or ellipsis, the only reason you would insert a space before is to drive your editor nuts.

It's easy to remember which gets what space where if you make a connection between the style's intent and the resulting style. (See my post titled "Different Goals, Different Styles: Why AP and Chicago Are Not Friends.") If AP style governs journalism, expect it to be condensed (hence the three unspaced dots for the ellipsis) and easily broken across two lines (via a space before and after the em dash and the ellipsis) to accommodate the space limitations and fast turnaround.

An enthusiastic subscriber to the four-dot-method ellipsis style (Chicago, 13.51), I was thrilled when I saw the period-plus-ellipsis construction in the copy the client provided. This is extremely rare in advertising; well, good grammar is extremely rare. Then, immediately, it was followed by sentences containing five dots and then eight dots. Then fourteen.

I burn through red pens very quickly at work.


  1. The AP em dash and Chicago em dash given in the example immediately above appear to be exactly the same.

    Also, isn't an AP em dash really a space before and after an en dash? (typographically speaking?). A space before and after an em dash is exceeding long, it seems to me.

  2. Thanks, Joe! Yay for crowd-sourced proofreading! And, yes, the spaces make the AP em dash look really long, and I suspect that this is why many people use an en dash instead. Don't do it!

  3. Back in the 80's, my typesetter would insert a partial space before and after dashes for me. It helped readability while not looking too spacey ;-]

    Of course, computer's caused all sorts of problems not the least of which is the hard-to-set true apostrophe and quote.

  4. How does AP style handle a full sentence followed by an ellipsis? Chicago says to put a period directly after sentence, then the ellipsis (four dots). But I am proofing for an AP style user and am not sure what to do. Should I even add the fourth dot (the period after the sentence)?

    1. After the period, one space, then three dots. Check the "ellipsis" entry in AP Stylebook. It's a fun read.

  5. I am curious what AP guide you are looking at. In the online version, they state:

    In the ANPA specifications AP follows, there is no en or em dash. AP stories use an underscore with spaces on each side for a thick dash. The en is equivalent to a hyphen, which links two words without spaces. Some publications use a double hyphen with spaces on either side to indicate a thick dash.

  6. I use the online version as well as the latest print edition. Look under the "dash" entry for an explanation of the long dash. Also, if you search online for "dash," you will see how the answer varies on this subject. One frequently repeated answer says, "Based on the ANPA specifications AP follows, there's no en or short dash (though a hyphen would be the equivalent of a short dash). In ANPA, an em or long dash is the underscore. So that's what AP uses." Interesting, yeah?

  7. You may want to delete the serial comma in your AP-style example (after the second cat's name) to avoid confusing readers.

  8. The Chicago style of the em dash never made visual sense to me, what with not having any space around the em dash. In general use on the internet, the em dash usually ends up having maybe one pixel of space around it, resulting in the letters on either side being right up against the dash. Its very cramped and seems to go against the intention of that dash -- to visually separate a concept in the sequence of words, and which mimics the abrupt pauses we use while speaking. But I see that your em dashes on here have a few pixels of breathing space around them, and the Chicago style surprisingly looks fine. It must be your style sheet? I wish I could wave my style brush to give all those cramped em dashes out there some breathing space.

    For the ellipsis, I've always felt that... it should be connected to the word preceding it, since this is a reflection of how people speak, as emphasis or in trailing off or stretching out that preceding word while they're thinking about what to say next. The AP and Chicago styles both emphasize the gap or pause between the words -- like taking a breath -- rather than emphasizing the effect on that trailing word itself. Maybe this comes down to a difference in intention: first person narrative versus didactic prose.

  9. It seems to me the digital em-dash is too wide—wider than an "m" for sure! As if it expanded to fill the width the old type-face's built-in mini-spaces on both ends. That may be why the digital space-en-space "wrong" usage actually looks more "right." Hmmm – maybe so!

    (This "hmm" example is indeed what the samples in this post look like, more en-width than the huge em-width ones my keyboard generates)

  10. I keep seeing the ellipses immediately following the word, with no space, and then a space after the third dot. It bugs me because that is neither AP nor Chicago style. What style guide says to do this, and why is this becoming a "thing"?