When to use the ellipsis or the dash in writing

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 use which was dealt with in an earlier post. 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.

Another dash, the en-dash, which is between the hyphen and em-dash in length—in fact, the width of the keyboard’s capital letter “N”—means “through” and is commonly used with dates and numbers to indicate inclusive periods or sections. As Nancy Tuten points out, these distinctions were known chiefly by professional printers and typesetters until word processing programs enabled all writers to use these marks of punctuation. (For a poem on this type of dash, see this one by Linda Ellis.)

First, some technical information for creating these two punctuation marks. Style guides have different rules for presenting the ellipsis. In Microsoft Word, the ellipsis can be inserted by going to Insert—Symbol—Special Characters. However, the default format for the ellipsis in Word has no spaces between the dots (). While this option is useful for inserting an ellipsis that will not break over two lines, most academic style require the format of three dots with spaces separating them (. . .).

If you are following an academic style for ellipsis, and you do not want the character to break over two lines, Allen Wyatt of Tips.com recommends creating non-breaking spaces by pressing Ctrl+Shift+Space Bar (. . .) and this keeps the dots of the ellipsis on the same line.

In regular text, a space is put before and after the three dots. With quotations, when an entire sentence or more has been left out, use four dots, each separated by a space, except before the fourth or last dot (. . ..)

Though it got its name from the typewriter age, the em-dash is easily created on the computer keyboard—the simplest method is to press Ctrl+Alt+the Minus sign (the one located on the numeric keypad). As a format rule, remember that there is never a space before or after an em-dash.

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. In contrast, the em-dash is used to emphasize a phrase or to indicate an interruption in speech.

The term ellipsis also refers to the appropriate omission of words that are understood and thus not needed; it is often used where the words omitted would be redundant. An example can be found on Literarydevices.com: The sentence “I went to the mall on Monday, and she went to the mall on Sunday.” could be shortened to “I went to the mall on Monday, and she on Sunday.” because the omitted words “to the mall” are understood from the context.

This resource also traces the origins of the word ellipsis to Greek word élleipsis, which means “omission” or “falling short,” and this definition points not only to the use of ellipsis to show missing text or pauses, but also a trailing off of thought or 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:

ellipsis use

“Jonathan, please, what I meant was…”

“What? What did you mean?”

Being cut off:

em-dash use

“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, 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” (93).

While ellipses tend to dramatize thinking, em-dashes create urgency. Consider this passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved:

     “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?”

(qtd in “Using Ellipses and Dashes to Create Dramatic Dialogue)

Kate Mooney, who devoted a whole article to the em-dash (“A Divisive Punctuation Mark Stands Alone,” New York Times, D5, 8/15/19), calls this punctuation mark: “emphatic, agile,” “adding emphasis to our convictions, alternately vexing and delighting readers.” She cites Mary Norris of The New Yorker who says that the em-dash (as noted by Kolln above) “can be substituted for almost any other mark of punctuation—the comma, the semicolon, the period, a pair of parentheses, the quotation mark, even a bullet point in the making of a list.” Mooney also references Martha Nell Smith of the University of Maryland who is an expert on Emily Dickinson. Smith says that Dickinson used the em-dash to “highlight the ambiguity of the written word.”

This post began by asserting that the misuse of both the ellipsis and the em-dash  is common, even though these marks of punctuation are not interchangeable. Therefore, 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.

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