An Admission of Grammatical Ignorance

Ellipsis and em dash: there is a difference.

Before this week, I honestly thought they were interchangeable and merely a matter of style preference. I have since been educated about their correct meanings and uses. I have also been advised to use them both sparingly.

I posted the question of which people preferred to use or see in published works to a few of the Facebook writers groups I’m on. (These groups are for writers to help each other improve their craft as opposed to groups for promoting one’s books.) My phone blew up the rest of the day with notifications of responses to my question.

Most of the responses agreed I need to use the em-dash for the purposes I have pauses in my prose (and some of my dialog). The most helpful actually explained the difference. The least helpful merely pointed out they have different uses/meanings without stating what those were.

For comparison of the proper use of the ellipsis and the em-dash,here are some samples of the more helpful responses. (Names are omitted for privacy.)

1. They mean different things, so they’re not really interchangeable. The hesitation mark (identical to an ellipsis, but serves a different purpose) is used when a character hesitates or trails off when speaking. The em dash is used to denote when someone is interrupted when speaking OR to denote an aside/additional information (rather than use parentheses).

2. They both serve the purpose of inserting a pause in your writing, but the flavor of the pause is unique between the two.

An ellipsis kind of makes the reader hang on in suspense momentarily. The last thought is kind of mentally suspended. An em dash is also a break, but it represents a quicker transition of thought from one idea to another. An ellipsis might be used where a speaker trails off mid-sentence, for example, getting distracted by something. And em dash in a similar situation would feel more like the speaker quickly coming to a realization.

“Do you know where… Oh, never mind.”
“Do you know where—Oh, never mind!”

while they both might seem to say the same thing, and effectively they do, it creates differences in interpreting the scene in this case. The ellipsis in the first example implies a longer pause, perhaps even a thoughtful one. The em dash implies that perhaps the speaker’s question was quickly interrupted by someone walking in, or finding what they were searching for, and thus they swiftly cut their question short.

That’s just the differentiation in application where they are used in a similar formula with different results. There are other uses for the em dash—such as in the place of commas to introduce a related thought mid-sentence—where ellipses wouldn’t make sense.

Additionally, my examples were for narrative works. In other types of writing (journals, articles, essays, and so forth) the ellipsis is primarily used to represent omitted portions of text in quotes.

“Style question… an ellipse or an M-dash?”

In that last example, I quoted you and omitted some text while maintaining the integrity of your question. The ellipsis was used to represent there was more text there that the reader isn’t seeing. An em dash wouldn’t be used in such a situation.

3. An em-dash typically indicates a pause longer than a comma would show. An ellipses is used to indicate an incomplete thought or statement.

4. An ellipsis is a trailing-off. It can read dreamy or scatterbrained and it reads like an intimate, personal narrative in real time. You can imagine the narrator losing their train of thought or suddenly changing the pace of their narration.

An em dash precedes an interjection. It’s jerky instead of smooth like the ellipsis. Use it when you want to insert more information or make a sudden change in direction. A character overflowing with information that they have trouble organizing may have dialog with a lot of em dashes. I speak with a lot of em dashes–I assume there’s more context needed than is actually helpful . . . .

Sometimes an em dash and a semicolon do similar work. Sometimes an ellipsis and an em dash do similar work. If you’re unsure, consider whether you should just have two shorter sentences.

“That wasn’t what she said . . . she wanted the blue one.”
“That wasn’t what she said–she wanted the blue one.”
“That wasn’t what she said; she wanted the blue one.”
“That wasn’t what she said. She wanted the blue one.”

None of these is wrong, exactly, but the first two options are a little excessive on the frilly punctuation. I tend to write run-on sentences so I’d go for the semicolon, but the period works just fine, too, and reads clean and straightforward.

5. Depends. I use an M-dash almost as a parenthesis. The ellipses are typically used as a thoughtful pause in fiction. In academic writing, it indicates that a part of the citation has been left out.

6. Copy editor here. They have different purposes. An ellipses is used for dialogue that trails off and for pauses in dialogue. An em dash is used for dialogue that is interrupted. Em dashes are also used for parenthetical phrases (could be replaced with commas or parentheses and have the same effect). Ellipses are never used for parenthetical phrases.

A couple of the responses also warned me of a pitfall my former ignorance posed for submitting to traditional publishers.

1. Just an FYI: if you’re querying a traditional publisher, best be aware that they KNOW the difference in usage between ellipses and em-dashes, and using them interchangeably is likely to get your manuscript rejected.

2. My opinion only. Definitely not ellipses. That’s a red flag for inexperienced writer. Use em dash sparingly. Restructure sentences not to need it. A few but not many.

So, I now know the correct usages of these two forms of punctuation. I hope sharing this information here will help other writers in their journey to publication. (It also provides me a quick reference without having to sift through reams of FB notifications to find them again.)

This proves you’re never too old to learn. I really don’t remember this being covered in any of my English or Composition classes in either high school or college back in the 1980s. (Not saying it wasn’t; I just don’t remember it.)

Now my next step in revising Blood Curse for the 2nd edition is to go through and fix all this. It’s going to take longer than my first few revisions, since I’ll have to use my desktop (which I don’t get much time on during the week). Unfortunately, my phone doesn’t have the em-dash available for use. That’s a lot of improper ellipsis to fix and/or delete and restructure the sentence.

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