As a writer, you’d think I would be all over good punctuation. But, as every one of my old English teachers can attest to, I’m horrible when it comes to putting punctuation in the right place. Periods, commas, exclamation, and question marks are all fine. It’s the finer points that get me. Ellipses, semi colons, and that elusive em dash that everyone seems hell bent on wiping from the English language. Seriously, search for the word em dash and you’ll see it’s the bane of lots of writers’ existences.
Anyway, so I’m writing and come to a crossroads of sorts. My character is being cut off in a sentence, and I’m not sure which is appropriate. An ellipse or an em dash. With some help from the lovely people at Absolute Write, I figure out the em dash is the correct one. Now the question is why? Why is the em dash the correct usage over an ellipse, when the average person won’t know the difference? Well let’s take a look at what Grammar Book, the free online bible of punctuation and grammar, has to say.
In informal writing, em dashes may replace commas, semicolons, colons, and parentheses to indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought.
So, em dashes are used to add emphasis to words and make them stand out. Overuse of them can make them loose this magical ability they possess though. I mean, imagine if you were reading an article with as many em dashes as periods. After awhile your eyes would just sort of graze over them as they faded into nothing more than another fancy type of punctuation. You would no longer see one, and be like “Oh wow! Wait what did that just say?” Instead you’d just mull over it and keep going, probably missing the entire feeling of that one piece of writing that the writer was trying to convey. As for ellipses, this is what Grammar Book had to say about those.
Use ellipsis marks when omitting a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage.
So ellipsis marks (or ellipses as I call them) can be used more frequently in writing. A good example would be writing about someone who is kind of zoned out at the moment. Let’s use this as an example: “Hey” Joe said to Suzy. “Hey, how are … Whoa! What was that thing?”
See how the ellipsis caused a break in the sentence. Reading it, you could see that they were trailing off, but it didn’t stop you in your tracks like the em dash above. With it’s similarity to our good friend the period, it blends in with everything else, but still gives you pause when reading so that you know the dialogue is being cut off short. That is the difference between the two, or at least that is the difference I gleamed. Do you share the hatred for em dashes as many others seem to do? Let me know below.