Being a Better Writer: The Ellipses and the Em-dash, Odd Forms of Punctuation

Welcome back readers! I hope you had, if from the US, a successful and interesting 4th of July, and if not from the US, a solid weekend! I did. For starters, my friends and I gathered and watched all of Season 3 of Netflix’s Stranger Things. I won’t spoil anything (obviously, I mean, come on) but I will say that I think it’s better than the second season. Mostly because they fixed the largest flaw with the second season, which was some weak pacing in the last few episodes. Here everything is much more tightly bound together, and there’s never really a single moment where even if you feel like you can stop that you want to.

So yeah, it’s really good. I do recommend. Next, there are only a few hours left in the Independence Day Sale! By tomorrow, it’ll no longer be available, so if you were planning on grabbing Shadow of an EmpireColonyDead Silver, or another book of mine while they were on the cheap, now’s your last chance! You’ve only got until the end of the day!

Finally, just a quick heads-up that we’re about to start the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice here with Being a Better Writer, and we’ve put out requests to you, readers, for every bit of cliche writing advice you’ve ever been told. If you missed the announcement, there’s a lot of cliche writing advice out there that can do more harm than good, especially when it’s taken literally and without the context it once had. So BaBW is going to spend the summer breaking down that advice, stepping back to look at what it really means and what you should be learning from it.

That starts next week and runs through either the summer or until we run out of cliche advice! If you’ve got one that you’ve always heard, go ahead and post it in the comments so it can go on the list!

Right, so with all that said (you read it, right? Sale, Stranger Things, and Summer of Cliche Writing Advice!), let’s talk writing! Specifically, let’s talk about some of the lesser-taught methods of punctuation out there: the ellipses and the em-dash.

You’ve seen them before … Right? In fact, there was one right there! Those three periods right in a row, the “…” That’s an ellipses, and you’ve likely seen one from time to time when reading a book. Or a lot if you read comics, or fairly regularly if you’re reading technical or research papers that use a lot of quotations. Though the use is a bit different in that last one.

Point being, you’ve likely seen it used somewhere. But, even though used on occasion, you don’t see it used as often as, say, the comma, or the period, or the question mark, all of which are regular features of punctuation you’re taught about in a basic school education.

But an ellipses? I remember asking one of my English teachers about it once and being given an answer somewhat along the lines of ‘Oh, that’s a thing some people do. Don’t worry about it.’ Some time later, it did come up when discussing quotations, but that was it. We didn’t talk about it otherwise.

By the way, if you’re not familiar with the usage for quotations, it is to use an ellipses when cutting a bit out of a larger quotation to let the reader know that you’ve cut a bit out. So if you quote a large paragraph but in the middle is a bit that has nothing to do with the topic (or a bit that counters what you’re arguing, as some less-ethical news sites know all to well), or trim a piece at the end or start, you cut it out and replace it with the ellipses to say “Hey, something was here, I just didn’t think it was on-topic with the rest of the quote.”

Anyway, while my English teachers were more than happy to discuss the rules for using question marks, commas, periods, and exclamation marks, when it came to the more complicated forms of punctuation like an ellipses, they brushed them off. In some ways I suspect because they themselves weren’t exactly sure of its exact usage. And sure, the regular student isn’t going to get much use out of it, if any.

But those that go into writing? Well, those of you that are well read can doubtless think of instances in books where you’ve found an ellipses either in the dialogue or narration. In my instance of asking my teachers, for example, it was because I had seen exactly that in the books I was reading. And even when my teachers had no good answers, I knew that there had to be some rules regarding its usage outside of quotations because, well, I was seeing it in the books I was reading!

Now a momentary aside here: This—by which I mean the scenario with the young student reading and seeing a strange form of punctuation and the teachers not really knowing how to approach it—applies to more than just the ellipses. We’re just starting with it.

So then, the ellipses has a use outside of quotations and in fiction. So what is it?

Well … the answer is pretty simple. You just read it. Right there, at the start of this paragraph.

What did your mind do when it hit that little patch of “…”? If you’ve been well trained by most works of fiction, well, you probably took a short stop. No, not a stop like the one a comma would bring. More like the stop a person makes when they draw out a word, or pause for a moment because they’re unsure.

See, the thing with a comma is it’s reflective of a certainty. If you’re speaking and your speech comes across with a comma in a transcription, it’s because you paused, but with purpose. You still knew what you were going to say next, or were sure of it.

An ellipses, on the other hand, is a different kind of pause. It’s the kind of pause that isn’t so sure, or that reflects someone who’s still collecting their thoughts. Sometimes it is an alternate to a period, to show that something has sort of “hung up” and trailed off. Like so.

“I don’t …”

How does that sound? Well, it should “sound” different than the same followed by a comma, or a period.

Okay, so an ellipses is a short pause, like a comma, but with a less sure connotation. I’m hoping you can already see the usage here. If you think back over a day’s conversation, for example, you can surely pick out instances were someone drew out a word or paused for a moment because they either were unsure, didn’t have an answer, or even were just stalling for time?

That’s the ellipses at work. Three periods in a nice, neat line.

Now, let’s talk a bit on the grammar of it. For starters, because it’s so … shall we say, unacknowledged by those that teach English, despite being incredibly common, the rules for usage and grammar actually vary to an incredible degree. For example, which of the following is an ellipses, “…” or “. . .”?

Both, actually. Now, the latter isn’t very common anymore, especially with the advent of word processors, but you may still come across it. Meanwhile, can you tell me the difference between “…” and “…”?

The second one is from a modern word processor, and actually counts as a single word for the purposes of paragraphing, while the first is just three periods in a line. They’re made the same way, but modern word processors, unlike this site, automatically detect an ellipses (usually, which is why we have editing!) and adjust it accordingly. This ensures that the formatting stays correct.

All right. What about using an ellipses? What’s the rule there? Spacing? Does it go “Hey…” or “Hey …”? What about having words after an ellipses. Can you do that? What about ending a paragraph?

Okay, first up, spacing. You ready?

Both are actually correct. However, only if one is chosen. Again, a lot of the rules with ellipses are pretty vague. What matters is that you’re consistent with whatever choice you make.

For example, I prefer having spaces before and after my ellipses, and before at the end of a paragraph. And that is correct as long as I do this consistently through the entire work. In fact, I used to do it differently, with no space before the ellipses at the end of a paragraph, until I got into the habit otherwise and decided it looked cleaner, and adapted over. Earlier works of mine, however? They don’t have the space.

But it’s consistent. That’s what really matters. Pick a style you like and don’t change it across the work. Keep it steady.

All right, what about words after an ellipses? Can you do that? Sure! Just … bear in mind that an ellipses is a form of punctuation, but a tricky one. Which means … Well, let me demonstrate.

Oh hey, I just did! See that final sentence in the paragraph above, and how it has an ellipses and then a capitalized word after it? That’s correct. But then … so is this.

At the same time. Yeah. Confused?

It’s actually pretty simple. With the first one, with the capitalized word, that word is capitalized because it’s a new sentence after the first one trailed off. See that? “Which means … Well, let me demonstrate.”

The second sentence, however, is just one sentence with a pause to collect in the middle. “But then … so is this.”

See the difference? The first is a sentence that trails, and then a new sentence starts. The second is just a sentence with a break in the middle.

All right, we already touched on ending a paragraph with spacing, but what about why? Well, it can be a good way, for example, for a character to trail off an observation in prose as they realized something is wrong. Basically, you can use to to show a trailing observation or attention. Just remember the spacing consistency.

Now, what about a trailing question? Can we do that?

Yes! Have you ever met someone who was, for example, shy? And they asked a question that kind of dies halfway through? Well, an ellipses is a good way to write that out. “I don’t know if …?” Just make sure that you put a question mark after the ellipses with or without that space (again, up to you, just be consistent) but inside the quotes (as it is dialogue).

An exclamation mark? Well … no, not really. No one really trails off into an exclamation. Sure, an ellipses in the middle of two sentences, the latter of which turns into an exclamation, that’s doable, if a bit rare. But just after an ellipses? That doesn’t really flow.

Okay, I think I’ve covered most of the common uses of an ellipses. Now let’s talk about its counterpart: the em-dash.

This is an em-dash: —

No, that’s not a hyphen. A hyphen is different. Em-dash has a hyphen in its name, but isn’t one. It’s longer, and it’s used in a different way. Where the ellipses is used to show someone trailing off, an em-dash is used to show someone cutting off. Either they catch their own words, shutting off what they were going to say abruptly, or something interrupts them, or whatever the cause the em-dash is used to convey that.

So, we could have something like this.

“Look, I’m sorry but I just don’t see—”

“And it doesn’t matter!”

See that? Someone cut someone else off. Or this!

“Well yeah, I was there that night, but—” They snapped their jaw shut, eyes going wide as they realized what they’d just admitted to.

And there we have someone catching themselves. Again, same form of punctuation, showing that they cut off abruptly.

Pretty useful. Now, I’ll note here that unlike the ellipses, which doesn’t really play well with an exclamation mark, the em-dash is pretty suited for it. Characters getting cut off mid-shout? Oh yeah, the em-dash has you covered. In the middle of a question? Same. The em-dash can do both.

Now, spacing. Do not put a space between the em-dash and the word it follows. Or between it and an exclamation mark/question mark. Where an ellipses has some spacing, as fitting what it shows, the em-dash does not.

Unless, of course, it leads into a new sentence. If someone is speaking, catches themselves, and then starts anew, then you can put a space after it. Again, though, that space means a pause of some kind. So for example:

“Well, it’s like— It’s like a bomb.”

That right there? It’s a catch in the dialogue. So there’s a bit of a space for the new sentence.

Now, there’s one other thing you can use an em-dash for, and that’s an aside. When someone who is speaking catches themselves and throws a quick mini-explanation into the middle of a sentence? You can use an em-dash for that, as long as it is nice and quick. Same for a sudden explanation, pause and resuming a sentence. Use an em-dash for the sudden change, end it with a period, then go back to regular with the next sentence.

As to how to make an em-dash … well, that’s tricky. Some modern word processors will automatically switch two hyphens in succession (ie “–“) into an em-dash. Some books out there will simply use two hyphens rather than print an em-dash. Other times it has to be manually inserted by using an “ALT+0151” input.

Some people Google it and then copy-paste. I had to do that on a laptop once.

Again, keep it consistent. Double hyphen or em-dash, but keep it consistent.

Now, I want to note that again, like an ellipses, you can end a paragraph with an em-dash, or use them in prose. And again, same deal applies, where an ellipses can show someone loosing focus or drifting, an em-dash is a cut, an abrupt change. Use wisely.

So, that’s the ellipses and the em-dash. Different sides of the same coin, one showing hesitation or a slight pause, the other an abrupt, sudden change or shift.

Neither really gets taught in literature or English classes. Most seem to think that someone will just “figure it out” if they ever need them. And so we’re left with a lot of “choose your own style” rules to pick from.

But both are fantastic tools of grammar that should be in your toolbox at all times, ready to go. Careful use of one or the other can make a character’s dialogue shine through showing their pauses, their stops, rather than telling the reader that they happened.

So, take the ellipses and the em-dash. Stick them in your toolbox. And use them.

Good luck, now get writing, and I’ll see you all next week for our first installment of the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice!

Until then, if you’ve been enjoying Being a Better Writer, consider supporting the author and helping keep the site ad-free by buying a book or becoming a Patreon Supporter! Or share this article so that others can find it!

5 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: The Ellipses and the Em-dash, Odd Forms of Punctuation

  1. I’ve been told I use both too often, so I’m trying to cut down.
    I tend to use the dash with a space either side if it’s being used as an alternative to parentheses (although it’s more an n-dash than an m-dash), as it’s one of the (many) punctuation variations common in the UK – along with single quotation marks for dialogue and italics for thoughts (optional).


  2. Reblogged this on Writing Wrinkles and commented:
    This is a useful article on ellipses and m-dashes. I’ve been told I use too many of both, so I’m trying to give them up, but this will point you in the right direction.
    Both are sometimes applied differently in the UK – I tend to put a space each side of my dashes when used as an alternative to parentheses (and they are n-dashes rather than m-dashes, as applied automatically by MS Word) but the important thing is to be make your choice and be consistent, as emphasised in this post.


  3. This is a helpful topic. For me, I just put the rule I made which is if they are trailing of to a new sentence or get interrupted, then go with em dash. If they are still on the same sentence but trying to change it midway, then I use ellipses. But then again, sometimes if there are a lot of mumbles in between sentences then I just use ellipses to make it look like an omission since the mumbling and chatter can be very tedious to transcribe. But this helped me get a more firm understanding in using both. thank you very much


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