Ask the Editor: When do you use an em dash? When do you use an ellipsis?

This is a column by Kira McFadden

Amanda Taylor asks:  When writing dialogue I sometimes have trouble knowing what is the right punctuation when it comes to random changing of thought while speaking, stammering, or a brief pause vs. a long pause. So my question is, when do you use ellipses vs. the em dash in the listed situations? Some say that ellipses are a big no-no in novel dialogue, so I am totally confused!

Kira answers:  This is a pretty common error I see. Authors like to use em dashes (—) in all three cases:  changes of thought while speaking, stammering, or brief and long pauses. The em dash is not always correct, though. To answer your last question, Amanda, ellipses (…) can be correct. Some people have different tastes, but here are a few examples and rules to let you know when to use ellipses and when to avoid them.

 

Changes of Thought

When a character has a sudden change of thought while speaking, an em dash is the correct punctuation to show the break.

  • Example:

“What are you talking about—wait, Johnny said it was Maria!”

The em dash shows the break in thought and is clean and abrupt. An ellipsis here would show a delayed change in thought and is not correct.

  • Example:

“What are you talking about…? Wait, Johnny said it was Maria!”

Notice the difference in the two statements. The second one has the question trailing off, then shows the part about Johnny and Maria as a completely different thought.

Incorrect:  “What are you talking about…wait, Johnny said it was Maria!”

Writing the sentence as above is not correct, because the first thought needs to be punctuated before the second thought can begin. An ellipsis shows someone is stammering or delaying part of a single thought (as in a brief pause), unless there the two thoughts are separated with punctuation (Note:  Add question marks after an ellipsis if the ellipsis is preceded by a question. If not, add a comma before a dialogue tag (“…,”). You do not add another period, however, as this is redundant).

 

Stammering

Say you have a character who has a problem articulating. How do you show this? An ellipsis is the correct way to show a character trying to relate what he or she is saying if s/he is stammering.

  • Example:

“I…I never thought…well, it seemed so strange…”

Many times I see sentences written as:

“I—I never thought—well, it seemed so strange…”

Or:

“I, I never thought, well, it seemed so strange…”

“I” is a whole word, and should be treated the same as other words when a character stammers. An ellipsis should go between one “I” and the other if a character stammers while saying it.

On the other hand, say your character stutters. You should use hyphens to indicate a stutter:

“I…I n-never thought…w-well, it seemed s-so strange…”

The hyphen shows that a character says the same letter or sound multiple times while trying to say a word. While “I” is a sound and a letter, the fact that it is a word takes precedence, and an ellipsis is used instead of a hyphen or em dash.

Also note in the preceding examples that after “well,” I have added a comma. This is because, “well, it seemed so strange” is a complete thought without stammering. If the character stammered after “well,” an ellipsis would be added rather than a comma.

 

Long Pauses vs. Brief Pauses

With a long pause, where a character actually stops speaking, it is best to show this with the character either falling silent or choosing to do something else. In this case, an ellipsis is not needed, nor is an em dash, though both can be useful.

  • Example:

“What did she say?”

“I…,” Ellen fell silent, but continued to scrub the dish for some time before speaking again. “I guess she said it was Maria.”

Here an ellipsis is used to show the character trailing off before finishing a thought. In some cases, however, you can end the thought with a period, comma, question mark, or exclamation point instead (depending on what the character says before s/he goes quiet or pauses). Just ask yourself what tone your character is speaking in.

  • Examples:

“What the heck?” He groaned, shook his head, and kept his mouth shut. (Note:  Groaning is not a Saidism—someone cannot groan in place of speaking; s/he can speak with a groan, or groan afterward, though. This is why “He” is capitalized rather than written as lower case.)

“Get out!” she cried before going quiet.

“You said it, not me,” she muttered, then fell silent.

An em dash is useful when someone is either interrupted or abruptly stops speaking without trailing off.

  • Example:

“I never said—”

“Oh, be quiet,” he snapped.

A brief pause should be shown either with the character stopping his or her speech before continuing, or an ellipsis. Ellipses are primarily used when the speaker stammers, pauses, or has a hard time completing a thought.

“What he said was…,” she frowned, sucked in a deep breath, and let it all come out in a rush, “that you were cheating. Is it true?”

Or:

“What he said was…that you were cheating. Is it true?”

Both are correct examples of a brief pause in dialogue. Because the second is a complete thought with a pause in the middle, an ellipsis is correct. Above, I mentioned an ellipsis as being incorrect when changing from one thought to another. Be very careful to note when your character is changing thoughts and when s/he is continuing the same thought after a pause.

Happy writing!

 

kiraKira McFadden is an avid enthusiast for all things publishing and writing. She has worked for two publishing firms and has helped local authors compile information for their works. You can visit her at http://inrugia.zxq.net.

 


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