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Spellcheck Cannot Save You! Using an Ellipsis vs. Em Dash

This is the third and final post in my Dialogue 101 series. In Part One we’ve already talked about what dialogue is and in Part Two, how it’s punctuated under normal circumstances. This time, we’ll look at what to do when you have interruptions. In the dialogue, that is. Not, like, your cat jumping on… [Read More]

Dialogue 101: When to Use Ellipsis vs. Em Dash by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

This is the third and final post in my Dialogue 101 series. In Part One we’ve already talked about what dialogue is and in Part Two, how it’s punctuated under normal circumstances. Dialogue 101: When to Use Ellipsis vs. Em Dash by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.comThis time, we’ll look at what to do when you have interruptions.

In the dialogue, that is. Not, like, your cat jumping on your desk and knocking over your coffee.

Right. Here we go!

When to Use an Ellipsis vs. Em Dash in Dialogue

“Hey, Bianca! Where’s the—never mind, I found it.”

Our speaker stopped mid-sentence because whatever she was looking for, she found. That’s a quick turnaround in thought and direction, so we use an em dash. (Because I use Chicago style, there are no spaces before or after the dash.) We don’t use a capital N on “never,” because it’s considered the same as a comma as far as mechanics go. It isn’t one, of course, but it’s treated like one when we’re deciding whether to capitalize what follows.

“Found what? I didn’t know you were looking for …  What on earth is that?”

Bianca responded to the questioner with another question, followed by a statement that was interrupted by something she saw: something totally unrelated to the item that was found, and that apparently is confusing or surprising or maybe even a bit frightening. Dialogue 101: When to Use Ellipsis vs. Em Dash by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.comThe ellipsis, the three dots, signals a pause that’s not as sharp as the em dash. It also signals that there’s something left out; in this case, that’s the rest of the original statement Bianca was making. Again, because I’m using Chicago style, there is a space both before and after the ellipsis. I could have, if I wanted, used three spaced periods instead. Pick a style and be consistent. I like this one, so it’s what I use.

Because “What on earth is that?” is a new thought, a new sentence, it begins with a capital W. If what follows the ellipsis is a continuation of the same thought or sentence, the first word is not capitalized. Like this:

“Found what? I didn’t know you were looking for … that old thing.”

I imagine Bianca’s coming into the room as she’s asking the question, and on seeing whatever it is that was found, she’s taken aback for a moment or two. After she recovers, she completes her thought.

Dialogue—Narrative—Dialogue

Let’s take this a step further. What if there’s narrative between the bits of dialogue, explaining what’s going on during the interruption? I’ll use the same dialogue so it’s clear what’s happening.Dialogue 101: When to Use Ellipsis vs. Em Dash by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

“Hey, Bianca! Where’s the—” Shari spied the antique coffee grinder half hidden behind a stack of vintage atlases. “Never mind, I found it.”

The em dash belongs to the dialogue, so it stays inside the quotation marks. Now “Never mind” begins a new statement, rather than a continuation of the old one as written in dialogue, so it gets a capital N and its own set of quotation marks. The narrative between the two bits of speech doesn’t have anything special done to it; it’s just narrative.

Enter the Ellipsis

“Found what? I didn’t know you were looking for …” Bianca made it three steps into the room before the sight brought her up short. “What on earth is that?”

As before with that em dash, this ellipsis belongs to the speech so it stays within the quotation marks. There’s a space before it, but not after; one of the rules you can count on is that there is never a space between a quotation mark and what comes after or before it. “What on earth” begins a new thought, presented after the narrative, so it has its own quotation marks and it still begins with a capital W.

But what if an action accompanies the speech? What if, say, someone’s talking and they do something (I don’t know what, yet) during the dialogue? Some action they can perform without pausing in their speech?

Another Case for the Em Dash

Enter the em dash, again. But this time, the mechanics around it are different. Look at this.

“I’ve never seen this thing before.” Bianca picked up the antique, turning it this way and that, poking at it. “Are you sure”—the handle refused to move in either direction, which annoyed her—“it’s Grandpa’s?”Dialogue 101: When to Use Ellipsis vs. Em Dash by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

Turning a handle is something a person can do while speaking, so we can insert what happens when she tries it into the dialogue with an em dash before and after, outside the quotation marks because the dashes belong to the intrusion, not to the speech. She doesn’t have to pause in her speaking in order to try turning the handle on the coffee grinder and become annoyed when it doesn’t work. Because “it’s Grandpa’s” completes the question she started asking, it does not take a capital letter I. And, because the intrusion is considered to be part of the sentence as a whole, it doesn’t take a capital letter T.

Some Examples to Clarify

Now let’s look at the dialogue without all of my digressions and explanations.

“Hey, Bianca! Where’s the—never mind, I found it.” Shari reached for the coffee grinder half-hidden behind a stack of vintage atlases.

“Found what? I didn’t know you were looking for …” Bianca made it three steps into the room before looking at what her sister was holding. “What on earth is that?”

“It’s cool, huh? Mom said that Grandpa made it himself.”

Bianca picked up the antique, turning it this way and that, poking at it. “I’ve never seen this before. Are you sure”—the handle refused to move in either direction, which annoyed her—“it’s Grandpa’s?”

“You calling Mom a liar? That’s it. I’m telli—” Shari moved to snatch the coffee grinder, but it slipped from her grasp. The brittle wood cracked as it hit the plank floor, and the drawer skittered under a table.

Lesson Wrap UpDialogue 101: When to Use Ellipsis vs. Em Dash by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

There you have it. Em dashes within quotation marks indicate quick changes in direction of thought and are placed outside the quotation marks to indicate speech intrusions (the unmoving handle that annoyed Bianca). Ellipses indicate a longer pause than em dashes, indicate that something is missing, and always appear inside quotation marks.


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