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.
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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