Grammar-ease: Ellipsis versus the em-dash

The ellipsis, three dots seen in text, signifies a pause within a character’s dialogue or missing text within quoted material.

The em-dash indicates an interruption in speech or to emphasize a phrase.

The ellipsis is always three dots: “…”.  Always three, no more and no less. Style guidelines vary as to whether or not to use an ending period if the ellipsis is at the end of a sentence. Some guidelines are satisfied with no final period.

The em-dash has history: in the day of the typewriter, an em-dash was represented by double hyphens amounting to the width of a capital “M” from the keyboard. With computers, you can format or insert an em-dash easily and it’s used to indicate an interruption within dialogue, or to emphasize a certain phrase. There is never a space before or after an em-dash.

I find examples helpful, so here are a few.

(1) Ellipsis and em-dash in dialogue:

“Jonathan, please, what I meant was…”

“What? What did you mean?”

Compare the above to this:

“Jonathan, please, what I meant was—”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses. It’s too late.”

Can you see how the first example is the first speaker trailing off and the second example has the first speaker being cut off?

(2) Ellipsis and em-dash as pauses/breaks:

There it was again…that subtle, but creepy scratching.

There it was again—that loud, terrifying scratching.

(3) Ellipses are great for slowing the reader down within narrative: They gazed innocently into each other’s eyes until hesitantly…gently…they shared their first kiss.

Within documentation, ellipses are handy for shortening long text. Use the ellipsis to show missing words, whether only a few, several, or even a few sentences. For instance, if you find parts of Martin Luther King’s speech useful in making a point use an ellipsis to remove words or phrases you don’t want the reader to focus on.

Special Note #1: A colon can sometimes be used instead of an em-dash. A colon announces that something special is about to appear. The em-dash does the same, but is more dramatic.

Special Note #2: A hyphen can not be used in place of an em-dash. A hyphen has its own special use to be talked about in a later column.

If you have grammar topics you’d like to see covered, please leave a comment about it.

Lisa Jackson is an editor, writer, and chocolate lover. She’s addicted to Sudoku, cafés, and words. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis — and you can, too! © Lisa J. Jackson, 2011

11 thoughts on “Grammar-ease: Ellipsis versus the em-dash

  1. Thanks, Google brought that up along with your blog. It is interesting to see the variety of opinions when you get beyond periods and commas. I think I am migrating from parentheses to ellipsis…can’t decide if it works better but somehow it looks more spread out and less convoluted.

  2. Pingback: Dash vs Ellipsis | A. B. Betancourt

  3. Thanks for the quick tips! I’m still confused about one thing, though. I thought the style manuals mentioned that the dots in the ellipsis should have spaces between them. So it would be ‘ . . . ‘ as opposed to ‘…’. All of my older books have the ‘dot space dot space dot space’ pattern, while the newer, especially indie published books I’m reading on kindle tend to have just the dots. Is this a situation where style is changing? Or has it always been ‘…’? Or, does it very by manual? Thanks again!

  4. Excellent post and great tips, Lisa!

    Although I use dashes for emphasis in narration and dialogue, I don’t like dashes at the end of a line of dialogue. How abrupt is abrupt? Usually, a person is in the middle of saying something or thinking about saying something. At that point, another speaker can jump in. So, I prefer to write:

    “But John…”
    “Look, Mary, I’m not going to argue with you.”

    Stylistically, that works better for me–but every author is different.

    • Hi Linda,

      When I read the above with the ellipsis, I feel like Mary has stopped talking and is gathering her thoughts or just doesn’t know what else to say…and then eventually John speaks up. I don’t read it as John cutting off Mary.

      You’re right about author styles – we each have our own, and isn’t the saying ‘once you know the rules, you can break them’? 🙂 thank you for the comment!

  5. Thanks for finally clearing up the em-dash vs. elipsis mystery. I’m on the nth (another extremely minor vaguery that baffles: how to write the variable ordinal number) revision of my story, trying to do all the line-editing myself. Alas! I can’t evade the truth any longer; I am a verbal fanatic.

  6. Is it a question of only using one or the other, or can they be mixed in the same passage of speech? After all one is a pause, while the other is an interruption.

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