Writing Tips: Em Dash, Ellipsis and Error

Writing Tips: Em Dash, Ellipsis and Error

Let’s talk about flow for a moment. I am not one for punctuation. Anyone that reads my work will quickly discover that I am awful with it. I try to work around it by using different wording or shorter sentences. I imagine to myself this will hide my weakness. But to an expert, a pro it will be obvious.

There are three things I would like to talk about. This has to do with the flow of a sentence, its basic appearance. The em dash, the ellipsis, and the double space error are also three things that can call you out to an agent or editor.

I’ve written for decades now, but only recently, or so I believe, have I taken notice of the little things of writing that are really much larger than I ever imagined.

The em dash:

In all honesty I had never heard of this until recently. Oh, sure I have seen it but I didn’t know it had a name. I should have known everything has a name and if it doesn’t someone will come along to name it shortly just so they can say they did it.

 Humphrey Bogart as Sam SpadeYou are to use the em dash when there is a sudden change or interruption in the sentence. Strunk and White states to use this only when a more common form of punctuation will not seem to work. That seems a little vague to me. But if you take a look at just about any form of writing you will see the em dash everywhere. By the way, the em dash is a double dash. Basically it is called an em dash because it takes up the widest letter font, the letter m. The en dash is a single dash.

Some writers just use it any time they like instead of commas or semicolons. Why? Either they think it’s cool or they don’t know punctuation or it could just be a style. Is it wrong? Truthfully, writing styles are slowly  becoming less and less strict with structure but there is a purpose to proper structure. It isn’t just for a good grade. It’s for a good read.

For me, I think I would use the em dash in harsh situations, or rather tough talk situations. If I were writing a detective novel I think the em dash would fit. I can see Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon reading out the punctuation of the dialogue now and I can hear ‘dash’ instead of ‘comma’ coming from him. Bogey did rapid fire dialogue great and he could switch between directions of dialogue so quick you almost didn’t see it happen. That script must have been em dash loaded.

“We beat it down to the docks and kicked the door in.”

“You did what?” Carson asked.

“I said—what’s she doing here?” Sam looked at the woman walking in the door.

Carson looked at the long legs as they passed him. “Sam—she’s doing anything she likes.”

In this example you get the fill that Sam immediately changes his words as the woman walks in. There is no pause. He just goes straight into questioning. For me that works. In the second case it doesn’t work for me. To me Carson is pausing after he says Sam as he thinks about the woman, so the em dash is too harsh there. The ellipses wouldn’t work because there is no missing dialogue or trailing off, there is just a hesitation so I would use the comma.

The Ellipsis:

The ellipsis is when you use (. . .). Of course that is without the parenthesis. You use three periods with a space between each one. Again, I had no idea such a thing had a name. And would you believe it . . . I had been using it wrong all these years. I didn’t put a space between the periods. Oops. And, I just used it incorrectly.  And no, I did not do that intentionally. I read back through this article and found it. It happens, so always proofread your work.

BacallYou use this when a sentence is trailing off or you are picking up in the middle of a conversation or a place I use it is when I am writing a telephone conversation but we only hear one side of it.

“We beat it down to the docks and kicked the door in.”

“You did what?” Carson asked.

“I said . . . what’s she doing here?” Sam looked at the woman walking in the door.

Carson looked at the long legs as they passed him. “Sam . . . she’s doing anything she likes.”

Now we have a pause here instead of the em dash and it’s as though Sam has looked at the woman a moment first before speaking.

The second pause works for me, but it’s not right. A comma will do the job.

 “We beat it down to the docks and kicked the door in.”

“You did what?” Carson asked.

“I said–what’s she doing here?” Sam looked at the woman walking in the door.

Carson looked at the long legs as they passed him. “Sam, she’s doing anything she likes.”

Combining the both the em dash and the comma pause in the passage works for me because I get a change of pace with each. There is a sense of urgency from Sam and casualness from Carson. It adds to character development with just a little change in punctuation.

The Space After Punctuation:

People from my age and older learned to type on typewriters, even if they were electric ones. This means we learned to hit the space bar twice after the ending punctuation of a sentence. For all those who do that, STOP! Computer fonts are set so that everything is spaced properly.

An agent or editor will look at your work and immediately see the spacing error. Should this be a killer to your career? No, but many agencies use interns and they like to sort through the submissions and for a punctuation pet peeve artist or someone who has a space phobia you have put them off already and they’ll just not continue. Hit the space bar once…ever.

© Copyright-All rights reserved-RonovanWrites.wordpress.com-June 16, 2014.


24 thoughts on “Writing Tips: Em Dash, Ellipsis and Error

  1. Don’t feel bad. I didn’t know their names either. So you’re saying that the em dash is when there is an abrupt change of tone and the ellipsis is when there is a pause, like when someone is thinking what to say next? Did I get it right?


  2. Thanks for this posting. I am horrible with punctuation as well. I was really good at it in college,but I think it slowly and lazily slipped out of my ears. Too much ocean water.

    Illipses are the bomb :p I love them. In college I was told to stop using them so much. They were my friends. Now a days people including myself do the double or even triple ellipses; I was more than a little tired …… I was depleted …… In every way!

    I think social networks have helped in making these happy little dots into ellipses choo choo trains.

    When used to express pause you leave a space between the marks and the words; Eric yelled and yelled … and then yelled some more. “I’m pissesd …” Eric said, angrily.

    Then if I remember correctly you need to use brackets around your ellipses to distinguish between the original posters illipses and then words you chose to omit from it so […]

    Honestly I don’t know if my brain can handle the nuances anymore 🙂 but I’ll try. If not promise y’all will love me anyway 🙂


  3. I am so glad you cleared that up. To be honest, I do use the double space after a period because that is what I was taught in school. We would get points taken away for not doing that (of course, we were taught on a typewriter, too). Lately, I have been fighting myself over this because it seems like too much space to my eye, but my mind tells me it’s grammatically incorrect to use only one space. Now I feel free to ‘one space it’…woohoo! 🙂


    • 🙂 The things you pick up rummaging around the internet writing sites. I had no idea either until a while back. It takes a little practice to get used to but before like it’s second nature to just use the one space.


  4. I am so glad you detailed the differences between the three. I did not know that the ellipsis had space between them, i usually just do this … well now i know that i have been doing it wrong :). I love using em dash in my writing because I learned it from Jane Austen, she uses them a lot in her novels. These tips were helpful, thanks.


  5. This was an interesting read — and somewhat hilarious for me as an editor/proofreader! You got it right, of course, but it surprises me that you should be surprised about the em-dash. You know there is also the en-dash, right?

    An excellent guide on this topic is The Chicago Manual of Style, which is widely used by writers and editors. Just Google it. And don’t hold my awful typing online against me, I’m much more behaved when I work…


    • Yeah, I know about the en dash. 🙂 But I wanted to keep my article short and have material for other articles later. And while I was doing the ‘make sure I got the info right’ work I saw mention of the Chicago Manual of Style and I want to say another one as well but can’t remember.


      • Well, in the humanities, the Chicago Manual of style is the most popular, then probably MLA. Both cover American English. For British English, there is the Oxford Style Manual. Sorry for too much information…


        • I’ll leave the punctuation tips to you. Hmmm…how about a once a week guest blog on my site Mara’s Manuscript (Something else with an M word.) 🙂 I like it. Saves me writing. 😛


          • Punctuation is very difficult, even experienced editors make mistakes, and there’s no single system. British and American systems are widely different, for example. Also manuscripts to be printed are different from manuscripts intended solely for online publication.

            I would absolutely love the idea of a guest post on your blog! But wouldn’t that be too boring? After all, in my experience, most writers don’t know or care about these details, it’s the job of the editor/proofreader.

            Now I’m busy preparing to present at a conference at the weekend, and then I have lots of proofs to do till the end of June, but if you’d like me to do a guest post, just give me a topic — as long as it’s along the lines of manuscript editing, I think I could do that 🙂


  6. Thank you about that space bar thing. I do that all the time, because that is just the way I was tought. I will need to get used to that one. No more 40 words per minute until I get this one under the belt.


    • Oddly of all the three tips in the article, that’s the one I see as being very important. Editors and publishers don’t want to have to go back through and correct something like that. And it really jumps out at them.


  7. Washington, D.C., 1999, and my first paper for my new Government employer was returned to me by the editors. I was informed that I needed to differentiate in my text the proper use of an ‘en’ dash and ’em’ dash. Apparently, these editors believed that senior government leaders relied more on the length of a dash for emphasis on the importance of the statement, than the facts contained within the sentence itself. I stopped using dashes in my work that would be reviewed by the editors, and I have always wondered if that is why the White House likes M&M candy.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Let me join the club. I didn’t know they had names. I use the en dash but not the em so much. I’m interested to see how I have used these in the past.

    Thanks for sharing these tips. I definitely need to look into these.

    Liked by 1 person

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