When to use ellipses vs. em-dashes

This post builds on the previous post, which focuses on the different types of dashes. I see beginning writers misuse or confuse the uses of ellipses and dashes, particularly the em­-dash. Some writers also use a hyphen instead of an em-dash, but this is incorrect. Hyphens have their own special function which was dealt with in an earlier post on when to use hyphens. This discussion will help clarify uses of ellipses and dashes and provide examples, including some from literature.

The ellipsis consist of three dots in a text (. . .). The dash () we are focusing on is technically called the em-dash because in the days of typewriters, it was formed by typing two hyphens together which was equal to the width of a capital “M” on the keyboard.

Ellipsis and em-dash in dialogue and narrative

The ellipsis is a sign that there is missing text in quoted material. Used in dialogue, it shows a pause in a character’s speech. The em-dash is used to emphasize a phrase or to indicate an interruption in speech.

Lisa J. Jackson provides some good illustrations of the difference in meaning and intent between the ellipsis and the em-dash used in dialogue; it is the difference between trailing off versus an abrupt end or being cut off.

Dialogue: ellipsis vs. em-dash

Trailing off:


“Jonathan, please, what I meant was…”

“What? What did you mean?”

Being cut off:


“Jonathan, please, what I meant was—”

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

In narrative, these punctuation marks can also signal to the reader a pause or break. In his post, “In Praise of the Ellipsis,” Adam Woolf provides examples of pauses within the text, as well as at the end of a sentence:

The reader was unsure about its meaning . . . it was time to check the dictionary.”

“All options were available to the author. She considered her words carefully before putting pen to paper . . . .”

When the ellipsis comes at the end of a sentence (as in the second example), it can be an effective technique to create mystery or suspense.

And, ellipses are great for slowing the reader down within narrative. Look at how Jackson illustrates this use:

They gazed innocently into each other’s eyes until hesitantly . . . gently . . . they shared their first kiss.

With the em-dash, the pause or break is more dramatic. Like parentheses, em-dashes can be used in place of commas, depending again on the rhetorical effect desired. As noted in the post on parentheses vs. brackets, Martha Kolln asserts that the use of the parenthesis “whispers, simply mentions in passing,” while the em-dash emphasizes or shouts the message. She writes that the em-dash is a “good choice for lightening the load of commas, while adding emphasis—it adds a ‘pay attention’ message to the writer” (Rhetorical Grammar 93).

While ellipses tend to dramatize thinking, em-dashes create urgency:

     “Nothing bad can happen to her. Look at it. Everybody I knew dead or gone or dead and gone. Not her. Not my Denver. Even when I was carrying her, when it got clear that I wasn’t going to make it—which meant she wasn’t going to make it either—she pulled a whitegirl out of the hill. The last thing you’d expect to help. And when the schoolteacher found us and came busting in here with the law and a shotgun—”
     “Schoolteacher found you?”

(Toni Morrison, Beloved, qtd in thebluegarret.com/blog)

This post began by asserting that the misuse of both these marks of punctuation is common, even though they are not interchangeable. It’s important to know their appropriate uses. In her blog on writing, Ramona DeFelice Long also cautions against overusing them. The em-dash may provide emphasis, but too many will disrupt the prose and dilute the emphasis. Overuse of the ellipsis can make the prose appear too tentative or the character appear unable to keep focused or complete a thought. Whether you are writing nonfiction or fiction narrative, the use of the ellipsis versus the em-dash is a style choice and will depend on the rhetorical effect you’re trying to achieve.

(Resources: Jackson; Woolf; Kolln; thebluegarret.com; DeFelice Long)

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