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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Using Dashes and Ellipses in Dialogue

I recently edited a bunch of short stories that were submitted for the 100 Stories for Queensland fundraising anthology (due out soon!).

These were the stories we accepted from the large number submitted, so obviously all had something good to offer. But one thing that struck me was that some authors were clearly unsure how to punctuate dialogue and, in particular, how to use ellipses and dashes at the end of a speech. So here's a quick refresher on this subject...

An ellipsis (the plural is ellipses) is a row of three full stops/periods with no extra spaces between them. In dialogue, it is normally used to show a speech that trails off.

"I think we should take that road," Mark said. "Although then again..."

In contrast, a dash can be used to show a speech that breaks off suddenly or is interrupted.

"You said it would be safe here. This is all your--"

"Shut up! And stop complaining. We'll be fine."

The style the editors used for 100 Stories for Queensland was to put no space in front of an ellipsis, and one space after if it appeared in mid-sentence. For example:

"I could eat a... Say, when are we going to eat?"

This approach is pretty standard among publishers nowadays.

For dashes generally, we used unspaced em rules (the alternative, popular with UK publishers, is spaced en rules). I'm using two hyphens side by side to represent dashes in this post, because en rules and em rules don't tend to display well on web pages. If you're working in Microsoft Word and want to produce an en rule (short dash), the simplest way is to hit the Ctrl key at the same time as the minus key on the numeric keypad. For an em rule (long dash) Ctrl+Alt+the minus key will do the job.

Incidentally, on other web pages you will often read about em dashes and en dashes as though they are two different punctuation marks. I feel that this is misleading, so personally I prefer to refer to them by the typographical terms em rule and en rule. They are just different ways of representing the same punctuation mark (the dash); the distinction is therefore purely a typographical one.

If you want to use ellipses and dashes in dialogue, I hope you will do so, as correctly deployed they make speech both livelier and more life-like. Use the typography above, by all means, but bear in mind that some publishers have different house styles. One publishing house I worked with a while ago despaired of the general confusion over dashes. They therefore told their authors to use hyphens to represent dashes throughout, leaving it to the copy editors (such as me) to mark up those that should be dashes.

If you have any comments or questions about the use of dashes and ellipses in dialogue, please do post them below.

Photo Credit: Three Women Arguing on the Sidewalk by Jo Guldi on Flickr.

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Anonymous Jim Gilliam said...


This was a straight on reminder. In my novel Point Deception I use a lot of dashes; however, ellipsis' not so much. Example: The question--always at the forefront of his mind--Had he encouraged Tim's decision to go undercover; knowing that he was possibly sending him to his death--robbed him of sleep. Italicized Had he... through his death-- I used the ellipsis thusly: "You must have found a real job." "It's..." "Let me stop you right there. Before you go on with the particulars, I've got to tell you that a detective sargent LeBeau..." Kelly's heart skipped a couple of beats and his mouth went dry at the mention of the detective's last name. Probably a coincidence, LeBeau was a fairly common name in Louisiana. "... came by today inquiring about a young boy of your description wanted for questioning as a possible witness in the matter of a double homicide in the French Quarter a little over two weeks ago."

I thought this was an effective use of both marks. What do you think. When I don't learn something new I'll be six feet under.

Jim Gilliam
Author, Point Deception
Check out:

3:44 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Hi Jim

Thanks for this.

Pairs of dashes can certainly be used parenthetically, as in your first example. I did find it quite hard to make sense of, though, and I don't think the semicolon helps. Really, though, I think you're trying to cram too much into one sentence. I'd do it something like this:

One question--always at the forefront of his mind--robbed him of sleep. Had he encouraged Tim's decision to go undercover, knowing that he was possibly sending him to his death?

In your other example, I would be tempted to use a dash rather than an ellipsis, as the speaker is interrupted rather than trailing off:

"You must have found a real job."
"Let me stop you right there."

The ellipsis isn't wrong, but I think in this context an end dash is better.

Hope that helps!


4:34 PM  
Anonymous Jim Gilliam said...

Thanks Nick. I'll keep it in mind for the sequel. I like the way you redid the first example though. I'm planning a mini rewrite to correct a few errors I noticed after the book came out. I'll do it your way on the rewrite. Please pay a visit to my website: I think you'll enjoy the visit. I've been a stanch fan of yours for a couple of years now and you've always given me good advice.


5:02 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

No worries, Jim. Thank you for your kind comments. I'll certainly check out your website.

Good luck with all your writing and publishing projects!

5:30 PM  
Blogger Catherine Miller said...

Hi Nick,

I just wanted to say a big thank you for this post!

I am one of the writers who has been selected for 100 stories and am still on a massive learning curve. Apologies - I know I had some errors but having read this - I know for next time.

Your posts throughout the process have been really useful.


11:15 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Many thanks, Catherine. I'm glad you've found my posts helpful.

Congratulations on having your story accepted for the Queensland anthology too!

11:27 AM  
Blogger SM Reine said...

Great post. I inappropriately abuse ellipses all the time. :D I've included this in my Saturday roundup:

8:59 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks. Glad you liked it :-)

10:55 PM  
Blogger Andrew Culture said...

Thanks for this post, I thought I was using these three dots correctly, and it's nice to have a bit of punctuation reassurance.

(I was going to try and use ellipses in this comment but...)

10:31 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

You're welcome, Andrew. Nice to see this post is still getting plenty of traffic!

11:25 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Nick, saying something is 'pretty much standard' in publishing these days seems a bit risky to me.

Style guides differ widely between UK, Aus and US.

Spaced ellipses abound, including a space before. One interesting one is the use of a period followed by a three spaced dot ellipsis for when the sentence is complete, yet the author wants to imply a pause. It looks like a four dot ellipsis but is actually a stop followed by ellipsis. This is different to 'trailing off'.

See Rowling, US Scholastic versions of Potter for example.

I agree with the applications of ellipses and dashes though.

Thanks, great site. Just found it.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks, Paul. Glad you like my blog :-)

By saying that the approach we used in 100 Stories for Queensland was 'pretty standard', I didn't mean to imply that it was a universal style. It's widely used, but as you say it's certainly not the only possible approach.

The point about the period being followed by an ellipsis is an interesting one. Some authorities take the view that if an ellipsis is being used at the end of a complete grammatical sentence, you should close the sentence with a period before the ellipsis itself. Depending on the sophistication of the typesetting, this can certainly look like a four-point ellipsis:

"I'm sure there's something out there...."

My impression is that most publishers nowadays don't bother with this, prefering to use three points (and no period) in all such constructions. But I'm sure some publishers do still observe this distinction in their house style. Quite possibly, it's more common in the US than in the UK, where I'm based.

Thanks again for raising an interesting point!


11:11 AM  
Blogger Kymberly MacAgy said...

I am copy-editing a book from 1929 (my husband's grandmother's work), and she uses em dashes in dialogue, and sometimes what looks like a double em dash to indicate a thought trailing off at the end of a quote. Should I replace the double em dash with ellipses? (I can't find a way to make a smooth double em dash that matches the other em dashes.) Also, would it look inconsistent to have both a couple of em dashes used parenthetically, with an ellipsis at the end of the quote when used in the same sentence or paragraph?
Thank you for your thoughts on my dilemma.

9:49 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for the questions. Here are my thoughts as requested.

The usual convention is to use an ellipsis at the end of a sentence if it trails off. If the speaker breaks off suddenly or is interrupted, a dash may be preferable. I would use a standard em dash for this purpose.

So in regard to your specific question, if a thought trails off at the end of a quote, I would be inclined to end it with an ellipsis as you suggest. If it breaks off suddenly, I would use a closing em dash. Double em-dashes are generally only used to indicate that some letters have been omitted from the word in question (e.g. "D-- you!" she cried.)

In answer to your other question, I would see no problem in having two dashes used parenthetically in a paragraph as well as a closing ellipsis. They are different punctuation marks serving different functions, so consistency isn't an issue.

Hope that helps a bit anyway. Good luck!

10:06 AM  

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