Does anyone use em dashes (or two hyphens) to denote speakers in dialogue passages? Joyce does this as does William Gaddis. Many others. I practice it, but my only "conceptual understanding" is that the dash-dialogue format allows you to group a character's entire range of actions, thoughts, and words into one chunk, headed by a dash. I really like this idea; it's very dramatic.

Here's an example which will lead to a more specific question.

Rick and Nelly walked through the cathedral.
-- It always makes me feel cold when I come here, he said shivering. I think it's something in the prayers.

One thing I seldom if ever have seen with dash-dialogue is the placement of the speaker tag at the end. So never this:

-- It always makes me feel cold when I come here, Rick said shivering.

So, I have made up a sort-of rule in my head that any speech tags or character blocking written into normal dialogue should only be inserted into the middle of dash-dialogue and not at the beginning or the end. My question is: does anyone know if there are specific rules to follow in writing this kind of dialogue?

  • This is a question that has an answer if you are looking for an approach based on prescriptive grammar. However, as a stylistic issue it's not so clear!
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 16:01

5 Answers 5


I think that's the default in Spanish; I grew up reading stuff written that way, and I find the quotes... strange.

I do use it a lot to add description to the dialogue. The way I use it slightly different to yours, though:

Rick and Nelly walked through the cathedral.

-- It always makes me feel cold when I come here, - he said shivering. - I think it's something in the prayers.

It's called a "quotation dash", apparently. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quotation_mark,_non-English_usage#Quotation_dash

  • So, you use the dashes around the speech tags and the punctuation. What if the speech tag comes at the end? Punctuate it normally? No dashes?
    – tylerharms
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 21:45
  • 2
    - Yep, that would be it, - I replied.
    – ggambetta
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 22:28
  • 4
    oh good gravy that makes my eyes bleed. Quote marks exist for a reason. Use them. Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 1:21
  • 5
    If you write in English, by all means. If you write in Spanish (as I do), quote marks would make readers' eyes bleed :) It's a matter of habit and I respect that; if/when I make an English translation, it will definitely use quotes.
    – ggambetta
    Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 6:49
  • 2
    @ggambett: Thanks for the wiki leak. From what I can tell, the only rule to follow is that the quotation dash should reappear after speech tags in the middle of a dialogue passage. As for bleeding eyes...that could be a good thing.
    – tylerharms
    Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 13:13

This is also standard in Polish. It's useful by freeing up the quotation mark for paraphrases, figurative expressions and inner quotes, while the long dash takes care of all dialogue needs and makes it really stand out from normal paragraphs.

Note we use the long dashes throughout the whole length, not just long at the beginning and short in the middle, and they replace the commas too. And they are often seriously long. Sometimes as long as an equivalent of a double or triple of your puny em-dash.

Rick and Nelly walked through the cathedral.

    ––  It always makes me feel cold when I come here –– he said shivering. –– I think it's something in the prayers.


An em dash inidicates a special kind of pause — perhaps a pause for thought, or a digression — that isn't really represented in any other way.


There's no such thing as 'two hyphens' for an em dash. There's 3 types of dash in use, hyphen, en dash and em dash:

: - hyphen

: – en dash

: — em dash

The term traditionally comes from the width of the capital letter M in cold metal type and is a consistent width to size of the font being used. eg in a 12 point font, the em dash width would be 12 points. An en dash is the width of a capital letter N, or approximately half that of the em dash. A hyphen is generally the width of a a numerical figure in most fonts.

Two hyphens do not equal the width of an em dash.

  • Thanks, but that's not really what I'm after. Sometimes a writer will head a dialogue passage with either "--" or "—" instead of using quotes. My question has to do with the rules about using this type of dialogue, which I'm realizing are not really defined in English.
    – tylerharms
    Commented Dec 13, 2012 at 17:47

Check out the English examples here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-English_usage_of_quotation_marks#Quotation_dash

In, for example, "Dubliners" Joyce puts the speaker tag at the end a lot. He appears to just be doing away with conventions of a lot of punctuation that isn`t necessary. In something like "Trainspotting," it appears to be more of a dialectical thing, where he doesn't use many speaker tags at all. Other writers use both to distinguish 2 types of speech.

I think that there aren't really any set rules, as most writers who uses dashes use them for the fact that it is different or does something that puntuation marks don't. But you might run into trouble with editors.

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