Em Dash Or Elipse; What’s A Writer To Use?


Although punctuation marks are not really “grammar” corrections, I find the tricky little devils fascinating just the same.  I mean, it’s so much fun to spritz my writing with commas, periods, and more! The question with punctuation is similar to comedic presentation–it’s all in the timing and placement, isn’t it? Let’s take, for example, the constant battle between the em dash (–) and the ellipse . . .

First of all, you should know that the dash actually comes in three convenient sizes, each with his or her own name:

  1. The Hyphen–This is the baby of the dash world, but is probably used most often. Why? Because little Ms. Hyphen is that tiny visual speck inserted between two words that otherwise may just compound themselves in inappropriate ways.  Think of  Ms. Hyphen as your old gym teacher who walks around school dances separating kids practicing (ah-hem) “close diplomatic relations.”  The hyphen is used to separate compounds of adjectives, verbs or adverbs: jet-powered marshmallows, super-vigilant neighborhood watchers, I’m feeling so-so, etc.
  2. The En Dash–En dashes give you just a skosh more room between words.  In old printer’s terms, this little guy was designed to be the width of the printed lower-case “n.” The en dash is used to replace writing “to” in values or lengths:  50–80 people attended my book signing–the Michigan–Michigan State rivalry extends into my family’s choice of sweat shirts–the July–August weather this year was devilishly hot.
  3. The Em Dash–The grandaddy of the Dashing family, the Em Dash is two hyphens or one lower-case “m” wide.  This is the guy who causes havoc with the ellipse.  He is supposed to be used to indicate interruptions of thought or to replace the obnoxious-looking parenthetical thoughts in a sentence: “You can’t do”–“Oh, but I can,” he replied to Sylvia–in a most ungracious way–without letting her finish.

ENTER THE ELLIPSE . . .

The ellipse is used in a gentler way to invite the reader to finish doing the writer’s work.  It is a trailing off of a thought, as in: “There are so many opportunities . . .” He let the words hang in the air as he dangled the dagger in front of Camilla’s eyes.  Ooh! Gives you the creeps, doesn’t it?

THE CONFUSION

When I’m critiquing my friends’ work–and editing my own–it’s important to hear the writer read their work out loud. This allows me to hear the intention behind the punctuation mark.  Was Casper trying to create the disjointed excitement of an interrupted thought, or was he allowing the reader to fill in the blanks?

A dragon writing down punctuation marks

Heh, heh, heh!

Here’s a little trick I use.  If I want to decide whether or not to use the ellipse, I ask myself if the sentence I’m writing is complete.  The ellipse is really a period. . .followed by either an after-thought or the time to think.  If my thought–or my character’s thought or words–are interrupted, it’s kind of like being called away from writing a letter.  The pen will often scrape across the page, leaving an inadvertent mark that looks rather dashing in its own, cavalier sort of way.

So, in short, interrupt with a dash, but then trail off with an ellipse. . .

Hope this helps start your week off on a fun thought.

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