Using an Em Dash vs. Ellipses in Dialogue

The incorrect use of em dashes and ellipses is not something that matters a whole lot in the grand scheme of writing. There are  more crucial grammatical issues such as direct address commas, apostrophes, and spelling. However, dash/ellipses confusion is a personal pet peeve of mine, and thankfully, the rule is easy enough to remember:

An em dash is the punctuation mark noted by the longer dash. It’s not a hyphen like what you see in this: A two-minute drill. The em dash is longer (—).

Use an em dash (—) for interrupted dialogue, thought, or narrative. Example:

“Why don’t you—” He stopped suddenly and looked behind him.

 The em dash in this case is noting interrupted speech.
Now consider the following:

Use ellipses (…) to denote a small pause, stuttering, or dialogue/narrative that trails off. Here are a few examples:

“And your name is…?” <– In this case the sentence is left hanging or trailing off.

“Are you sure you want to…. you know… go in there?” <– This sentence is using ellipses to show small pauses in dialogue.

What I see writers doing a lot is using ellipses to note interrupted speech, and this simply is not right. I also see em dashes being used to note stuttering in dialogue. While this isn’t a terrible cause for concern, it is important to keep in mind that punctuation symbols mean something! They aren’t just there for you to pick and choose whichever one you want. They all are used for different purposes, and as a writer it’s important to know what those differences are.


17 thoughts on “Using an Em Dash vs. Ellipses in Dialogue

  1. I use ellipses way too much. I’m not even sure why I like them so much. I just do. I actually wanted to use them at the end of that last sentence.

  2. Reblogged this on One Starving Activist and commented:
    I have a love of the Em Dash, but tend to use it to call out things in passages, rather than to designate interrupted dialogue. Although I think I have used them for that too. Such information is important as we continue to hone our craft!

  3. Pingback: Using an Em Dash vs. Ellipses in Dialogue | A W...

    • I should have mentioned that! There actually isn’t a keyboard em dash. What you can do to make an em dash is, when you’re in Word, make 2 hyphens next to each other, and when you add a space, Word will autocorrect to form an em dash. You can also set up a keyboard shortcut so you can have a key for the em dash.

  4. I have been using elipses and em dashes the way you describe since I was at junior school. However an editor recently returned my work for approval and I noticed that all the em dashes had been replaced by elipses! When I queried this, she said that she’d never seen the em dash used as an interrupt before.
    ‘But – ‘ I began.
    ‘Nope. That’s how we do it in Australia,’ she said.
    “Ah…’ I sighed. ‘Different rules.’
    Has anyone else encountered this peculiarity?

      • Interesting! I know that British and American spellings and punctuation can be different, so I guess this doesn’t surprise me. Although I personally haven’t heard of this difference before. That’s a good point, though, to make sure you and your editor are on the same page regarding American or other spelling and punctuation usage.

  5. Pingback: A Note on Ellipses | Word Stomper

  6. N.B. The ellipsis is three SPACED dots. It the trailing off part is a complete sentence, then there is a period and three spaced dots. In the example “Are you sure you want to…. you know… go in there?” not only should the dots be spaced but the “Are you sure you want to….” should not have the period. Overuse of the ellipsis in fiction becomes a tic and begins to look like scars from stitches.

  7. Hi Amanda,

    I am a lover of the em dash since reading Kerouac. His novel, “On the Road” is riddled with them. I’ve also heard from an English professor that the em dash in narrative is a way to say, “wait for it.” As if the writer is going to deliver something important. In the novel that I’m working on, I use the em dash frequently, in narrative and dialogue. An example, “The paper trail we talked about–we’ll find a lot of it at his residence.” Is this acceptable?

    Thank you!


    Of course that’s not a proper em dash, as WordPress won’t allow me to create one. 😉

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