Monday, September 28, 2015

Editing: Check your Ellipses and Em Dashes

This is just a short note on ellipses and em dashes. I've sometimes seen ellipses used where an em dash is needed and vice versa.

Ellipses are those three little dots ... They are used to indicate an omission or something is missing from a long direct quotation, if for example you are only using part of a quote and leaving off a few words. The ellipse goes at the point of omission.

More often in novel form, the ellipse is used to indicate hesitation or loss of concentration in a character's dialogue. Or perhaps a character trails off and doesn't finish a sentence of dialogue or thought. The sentence will then end with ...

I usually see these handled with a space before and after, such as:

"I wish I could tell you about ... I just can't."

"Look at his abs. They are so dreamy and ..."

Why did I ever start this post? It's so hard to think of examples when I should be cleaning. I wish ...

"Um ... where do I go from here?"

An em dash, on the other hand, indicates an insertion that isn't quite on topic. An aside by the character or narrator. It can also be used in dialogue when a character is interrupted while speaking. It is not a hyphen, but two hyphens typed side by side with no spaces around them. Word will automatically connect them into a longer em dash when done correctly.

“I love eating tacos—the extra-loaded kind from that quaint Mexican place—when I’m studying for finals.”

“Is that my—”
“Yes, it’s your dress. I borrowed it.”

“Today, I found the best sale—all the best sales happen this time of year—on shoes.”

An em dash is also used when inserting a tag in the middle of dialogue.

“My cat got”—he dashed at his eyes to wipe away tears—“run over by a truck.”

(No cats were harmed in the making of this post.)

So that's a little about the differences between ellipses and em dashes. Always be careful not to overuse them and tire out the reader.

How about some examples of how you've used them in the comments? Here's your chance to be fun and creative. It's not so easy to make them up on the spur of the moment, is it?

Edit: Em dashes are becoming more popular and are often used in place of semi-colons now. My Harper Voyager editor prefers this.


  1. I love them both and am trying to reduce my usage :D

  2. It did take me a while to get these usages down.

  3. I have nothing to say about . . . uh . . . whatever we were talking about.

    On the other hand, dashes--I use them all the time--add flare to anyone's writing. I also use them instead of having a sentence fragment that's related to the previous sentence. Here's an example: Overuse of ellipses and dashes can annoy readers--for sure!

  4. Em dashes can also be inserted using alt-0151 if (like me) You have a hard time getting Word to put them in the other way.

    1. I actually created a shortcut on my laptop that lets me use control-D to make the longer em dash. I wish I could remember how I made the short cut.

  5. Eww, you put spaces around your ellipses and none around your dashes. I do it the other way around. >< Tell me you don't space between the dots, too! I've seen people do that and it looks ridiculous IMHO.

    (Well, I don't space dashes when it's the cut-off dialogue variety. At least we agree on that.)

    1. The copy editor put a space after an ellipse but not before and no spaces on the dash. I suppose it varies by publisher. I don't care for spaces between the dots. Word should space them correctly for you.

  6. I'm old school about adding the fourth period when the end of the sentence follows the trailing off. I've had lots of people correct me. Has the fourth period become extinct?

    1. I think so. Just like adding two spaces after a sentence.