One of the more common mistakes I see with writers is the use (or misuse) of dashes and ellipsis. When do you use ellipsis? And when do you use hyphens or the longer em dashes?
Here are the rules, as followed by The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and most publishers:
Use the longer em dash to indicate faltering or interrupted speech. Here are some examples from CMS:
“Will he—can he—obtain the necessary signatures?” asked Mill.
“Well, I don’t know,” I began tentatively. “I thought I might—”
“Might what?” she demanded.
CMOS also says that if the break belongs to the surrounding sentence rather than to the quoted material, the em dashes must appear outside the quotation marks, as such:
“Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots, and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to see it.”
The em dash, by the way, can be obtained in Word either when you write two dashes and immediately after write a letter, or by holding down the control and alt keys and the dash on the upper right hand corner of the keypad.
The smaller hyphen is used when just a word is incomplete, as when a character is stuttering: “I d-don’t kn-know what to th-think.”
Ellipses, however, are often used when the character is stammering, but the words are complete, as in: "I ... I don't know what to think."
You can use a combination in a sentence:
“Why ... why don’t you dr-drive a bit more ca-carefully?”
Just be careful you aren't driving a reader crazy! The above sentence, to my taste, has too much going on, and is hard to read. It may slow the story down. I would have pared some of these away, as they make it a bit more difficult for the reader.
There’s a school of thought that would eliminate ellipsis, which have become rather overdone in writing today. For one thing, most writers use them incorrectly, when they should be using em dashes or commas. For another, if a writer uses them too much (as in every other sentence of dialogue) they become an annoying visual roadblock for readers. And, finally, they indicate weak dialogue.
“Ummm…what do you think…should I do it?”
“Hmmm…well…I don’t know.”
“Yeah…I better think about it…at least a bit more.”
Maybe real people talk like that, with pauses. But this is amazingly boring dialogue (not to mention that some of those ellipses should really be commas). If you are writing snappy, fresh dialogue, you probably won’t need many ellipses.
So next time, before you type those three little dots, think about what you really need, and whether there’s a better way to write that piece of dialogue.
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.